All-rounder who charmed a generation

Denis Compton, perhaps the most exciting batsman of all time, a man whose debonair image and cavalier approach to sport and life captivated an era
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The Independent Online
Shortly before Arsenal met Liverpool in the 1971 FA Cup final I was made responsible for bringing together members of the team that defeated Liverpool at Wembley two decades earlier.

At a lunch put on by the Daily Mirror, a photograph was taken of them to be published alongside one as they once were. Of course, life after Arsenal had been kinder to some than others. Joe Mercer, Freddie Cox and George Swindin had gone into football management but the team's brilliant Scottish schemer, Jimmy Logie, was selling newspapers outside a department store in London.

Nobody needed to ask Denis Compton how things were shaping up. Still handsome and debonair, he was seen frequently on television and had a newspaper column.

However you look at fame, Compton, who died yesterday at 78, is famous not merely for his prowess at cricket and football. Even people who never miss an opportunity to boast that they are utterly uniformed about sport, and deem an interest in games evidence of arrested development, associate Compton with stardom. The connection thrives in their subconscious and is, therefore, a measure of true fame.

The proof is in the records and the memories of the men who played with, and against, Compton, especially during the long hot summer of 1947 when he amassed 3,816 runs, scoring a record 18 centuries that included six against the touring South Africans.

However, it was not merely that Compton was a great batsman and, in the view of many qualified judges, the most exciting of any time. It was not just that he had nerves of brass and a constitution that did not appear to require much sleep or bicarbonate of soda. Rather it was that - as John Lardner wrote of Walter Hagen - he was "one who succeeded as few members of our meekly desperate species have done, in adjusting the shape, speed and social laws of the world to his own tastes."

Unless it was Compton's friend, the great Australian all-rounder Keith Miller, nobody seemed to get more fun out of sport. Now he has gone, following from that Arsenal team of 1950, Wally Barnes, brother Leslie, Mercer, Logie, and, recently, Reg Lewis.

You may think this pedantic and in the circumstances a little ungracious, but because Compton's 14 appearances for England at football were made in unofficial wartime matches it is not entirely accurate to describe him as a dual international.

In an autobiography published 47 years ago, Arsenal's famed outside-left, Cliff Bastin, wrote: "Denis is one of the greatest all-round sportsmen England has ever known...but as a footballer, I find it rather difficult to form an opinion of Denis, for war-time football provided no proper test. He has a fine left foot, and clever ball control, and perhaps if he had devoted more time to football, since the war, he would have been able to achieve his ambition of adding a full cap to those he won during hostilities. As it is, Denis, quite unspoilt for all his brilliant success, is undeniably a better cricketer than he is a footballer."

Compton's cricketing prowess and good looks led to a breakthrough in sports marketing when an astute accountant, Bagenal Harvey, signed him to an advertising contract with the makers of Brylcreem. Others soon followed: the Fulham and England inside-forward, Johnny Haynes, and a dual international, Arthur Milton of Arsenal and Gloucestershire, but Compton's is the face that most people of my generation remember.

Apart from great natural ability, what Compton had above all else was an appealing personality. He took sport seriously enough but like Miller, who had some hairy experiences as a fighter pilot, he did not think it to be a life-or-death matter.

Little about Compton, in his marvellous batting or his life, suggested much in the way of conformity, but unlike many of today's heroes he did not embarrass himself or the establishment. An important thing was that people would queue for hours to watch him play. I know this to be true because I was one of them. You could not hope to emulate Compton but his improvisation was thrilling.

When barely 17 years old I played against Compton in a Football Combination match at Highbury. I called him "Mister". He knocked me over when going for the ball, and at the time I could not think of anything better.