Stephen Brenkley: When Nick Compton made everyone feel good again

Compton, wouldn't you know it, was also a brilliant footballer who played for England during the war

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The Independent Online

This was by a distance the most magnificent image of the week. "My fondest memory was playing in the backyard when I was 12, dad throwing me some underarms, and I was playing with a high elbow, hitting the ball back. He was sitting on the porch, with the ever-present glass of brandy, and he just said to me, 'For God's sake, hit the bloody thing'."

The speaker was Nick Compton and the observer in the porch was his grandfather, Denis. Everything about it seemed to fit perfectly, the setting, the stricture, the drink. Young Compton did not say if the old boy was wearing a dinner jacket at the time but he ought to have been.

Throughout his career as a professional cricketer, with justifiable designs on playing for England, Nick has lived in the shadow of his grandfather. It is a measure of the younger man that he has come to terms with precisely what that means.

One of the things it means is that speaking to Nick as he prepared to play for England Lions last week, the last step on the road to playing for England in a Test match, was inevitably to allow the mind to wander to Denis. "In my formative years at Middlesex and Lord's, I became very aware of it. It hit me very hard then that this guy must have been something special.

"I remember old ladies, 70 or 80, coming to the gate. Whether I played cricket or not, I don't think they really cared, but the chance to talk to me and go back to being 30 or 40 made their face light up."

Denis Compton made everyone feel young again. He was the embodiment of style and cool before style and cool were invented, a gregarious man, a poetic batsman, a matinee idol to rival Cary Grant. And do you know, talking to the gracious Nick, it struck the chord that it is 75 years this very month since he launched the season that would render him immortal.

In the hot summer of 1947, which followed a bitterly cold, snow-ravaged winter in a gloomy country brought to its knees by the recent war – and where rationing was still imposed – Compton, it is always worth repeating, made 3,816 runs and scored 18 hundreds, both records that will stand forever.

His Middlesex partner, Bill Edrich, had an aggregate of 3,539 runs with 12 hundreds. Together they plundered the touring South Africans. They made a nation feel young and also happy again.

Last week we were informed by the courtiers who attend its every whim that the Premier League football season which ended yesterday was the best there has ever been. Apparently that goes back, oh, all of 20 years, as if sport started then. Poppycock from popinjays.

But nobody who is part of this outstanding marketing trick bears comparison with Compton. For five or so years from 1947 he was the most famous person in Britain. He was the first sportsman to have an agent and when advertising hoardings were a key instrument in selling techniques his image bore down from them all over the land. "That's the style," they said.

Men wanted to be Denis Compton, half of the nation's women wanted to mother him and the other half certainly did not want to mother him.

The May of 1947 started wet and Compton took a while to get going. His form started to turn on 19 May when he made 97 for MCC against the South Africans and on 22 May he made the first of his hundreds. England and a good part of the world were transfixed.

After it was done the glorious R C Robertson-Glasgow, Crusoe himself, wrote in Wisden, of Compton and Edrich: "They are the mirror of hope and freedom and gaiety; heroic in the manner of the heroes of school stories."

Compton, wouldn't you know it, was also a brilliant footballer who played for England on 12 occasions during the war when caps were not awarded and for Arsenal both before and after it, winning an FA Cup winners' medal in 1950. It was football which caused the country to be in regular fits of despair and worry about Compton's Knee.

He had initially damaged it in a collision with one Sid Hobbins, the Charlton Athletic goalkeeper, in a Division One match in 1938 (Division One used to be what was colloquially known as the top flight). Years later, when it seemed as though Compton's cricket career might be forced into premature closure because of the knee and a country mourned, Hobbins wrote to apologise, though the incident had been nobody's fault.

What remains remarkable about that 1947 summer is that it should have been Compton, the ultimate stylist performing imperishable statistical feats. Crusoe recalled receiving a letter which said: "As one of Compton's admirers and doubtless all who see or meet him get that way, I hardly expected him to score 18 hundreds in a season. I thought him too good a player for that sort of thing."