This time last season Nick Compton was a 28-year-old county stalwart with 343 first-class runs to his name and distant dreams of an England cap. Fast forward to the present, Compton has seven caps but just 16 first-class runs. All of which came in his second innings yesterday as Somerset and Surrey played out an intriguing draw at The Oval.
Compton could not have wished for a better platform to play with the authority becoming a Test centurion. Yesterday was a day to warm the beer – Graeme Smith was the only fielder with hands in pockets, but then he is South African – and the hearts of county cricket lovers. England openers past and present, in the form of Marcus Trescothick and Compton, skipped to the crease under blue skies to face two bowlers hoping to become Test players, future tense.
One cricket writer with many a year of county press-box duty behind him, believes there has never been such optimism around the domestic game. Amongst the players, the rise of Compton is a significant factor. Despite footwork in both innings as sluggish as the arrival of spring, his recent international achievements have given succour to plenty of late-twenties Test aspirants. The 29-year-old has proved that weight of runs on the county circuit can earn you elevation to the Olympus of Test cricket. The message is simple: it is never too late.
It is also true that the arrival of Smith, the most experienced captain in Test history, to lead Surrey has invigorated the game. He may have failed with the bat but his bowling changes throughout this match have proved inspired. Just as Shane Warne did at Hampshire, Smith's strength of character should galvanise the Surrey youngsters.
Jade Dernbach is one such youngster. Already his coach Chris Adams has said of Dernbach, "I've never seen him bowl better with a red ball than I have in this match." Another is Stuart Meaker. After a difficult winter touring with England and some 24 overs of erratic toil in the first innings, Meaker clicked into gear in the second. His five for 60 did full justice to the comparisons to Darren Gough and earned the praise of his new skipper.
"He obviously has the pace and skills to take wickets," said Smith, "and he has a bit of an X-factor. Once you find that confidence as he did in the second innings, I think he will be very successful."
Meaker's first two wickets were the pick of the fistful, raising hopes of Surrey turning a certain draw into an unlikely victory. In the fifth over, he angled a fuller-pitched delivery away from a leaden-footed Trescothick, to have him caught at second slip with Somerset's lead at 40. Then life began as Meaker sent Compton's off stump back-flipping towards the third-man boundary with a delicious yorker. It is not often one witnesses the defensively correct Compton bowled, and the dismissal perhaps said more about the quality of the bowling than the opener's reluctant footwork.
When Craig Kieswetter was lbw just before lunch, Somerset were just 100 runs ahead with six wickets in hand. Surrey needed a flurry of wickets after the interval but, just as he had in the first innings, Alviro Petersen resisted in a style becoming an international batsman. His demise – nine runs short of becoming the first Somerset player to score centuries in both innings on debut – sparked the flurry; it just came an hour too late. Jos Butler's 94 was merely a boisterous postscript to a day that announced the arrival of the English summer.