Obituary: Denis Compton, 1918-1997: The sporting idol we knew

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The Independent Online
Tim Heald

The author of the most recent biography of Compton, his boyhood hero. "How many of us could refuse?" he writes. "If I couldn't bat with him, writing was the next best thing."

THERE was no side to Denis, not an ounce of malice in him. In some ways, I guess, he didn't know how brilliant he had been. But he was, and the effect that he had on people that magical summer of 1947 has lasted all our lives. It was before the era of television but when Denis's photograph was put on hoardings advertising Brylcreem they didn't have to put his name alongside. After the book was finished we kept in touch and one day arranged to go out for lunch with Ronald Harwood, the playwright who had idolised Denis as a boy in South Africa. Denis had been his first hero and his feelings had hardly changed with the years. When Ronnie's friends found out about the lunch date they wanted to come as well, such was Compton's allure. Albert Finney asked as did Harold Pinter but Ronnie wouldn't share the occasion. Denis had been a seminal influence on his life and this was a pretty special lunch for him. We duly arrived at the Garrick Club and went into the dining-room. At the end of the centre table sat Anthony Hopkins, the actor. He was a friend of Ronnie and at the time was just about the most famous actor in the world. Silence of the Lambs had been a huge film, he had been awarded an Oscar and knighted. Ronnie proudly introduced his lunch guest, Denis Compton, and Sir Anthony made a fuss of him and said what a privilege it was to meet him. Denis shook his hand and replied with characteristically perfect politeness. We then went to sit down at our table and Denis said: "Who was that bloke?"

Trevor Bailey

Appeared with Compton in the same England side on 41 occasions and remained a lifelong friend.

THE talents were given by God. Batting with him, despite his reputation for running between the wickets, was invariably enjoyable. It was particularly interesting when he made his best Test score of 278 against Pakistan in 1954. He was at the peak of his game that day against a fairly indifferent attack and with Tom Graveney had added 154 in 85 minutes. I decided the best way to sustain the momentum was to give Denis the strike, so I contrived to take a single whenever I could. He had to have the bowling. Compton and Bailey outscored Compton and Graveney, even though my contribution to a partnership of 192 was 27. He was golden in every sense of the word. His talents were golden, of course, but he was also blessed in other ways. On one Australian tour four or five of us went to a race meeting in Sydney. Denis decided which runner he fancied in an early race and went up to a bookmaker, who recognised him immediately. On hearing what horse Denis was tipping the bookmaker told him he should back another one and then wrote out the betting slip. The race took place and the horse that the bookmaker had mentioned came home. Denis wasn't sure if he'd backed it or not because it was impossible to make out the bookmaker's scribble. He went up to the paying out counter, asked if it was all right, was told it was and received his winnings. We were off to dinner (on Denis) when suddenly there was a commotion behind us and it was the little bookie. He was shouting and running after us. "Mr Compton, Mr Compton," he said, "I forgot to give you your stake money." He was that golden.

Neil Harvey

Of the immediate post-war generation of Australian batsmen, Harvey was the most gifted. He scored 6,149 runs and played in 15 Test matches against Compton.

AUSTRALIA were a pretty good team in 1948. I wasn't in the side at the start of the series but I remember getting pretty tired of Compo quite early. In the first Test at Nottingham I spent the entire second innings on the field because Ray Lindwall was injured. I was at cover point and Denis played an innings that spread over three days because of rain. I chased a lot of leather while Denis got 184 and that was the first impression I had of the man. It never went away. I was always so relieved when he was out. He had unbelievable panache and that sweep shot of his has stayed with me. He came into the dressing-room at Nottingham but I was too shy to talk to him. Even then he and Keith Miller were on their way to being soul-mates. It was always fun seeing them together. About four years ago my wife and I were invited to Ireland by their cricket association and who should be there but Denis. I was no longer shy. We had a marvellous night.

Ossie Dawson

South Africa's opening bowler in the Test series of 1947, Compton's annus mirabilis.

I WOULDN'T want it thought that Compo was impossible to get out that year. I dismissed him twice. The first time he had made 115 and the second 113. He was something of a nuisance. My abiding memory of him is of a wonderful fellow. He always came into our changing-room to have a word, never to gloat. Denis came out to South Africa quite a bit and was always refreshing company. The last time he was drinking only champagne. There was one moment in 1947 when I might have got the better of him. It was our last match, against the South at Hastings. I made my only hundred of the tour, 166, and was pretty pleased when the last 50 came in 45 minutes. When the South batted, Denis only got 101. He gave his wicket away, dancing down the crease. He did so because it was the innings which brought him his 17th hundred of the summer, breaking Jack Hobbs's record. Play was held up for five minutes while he was congratulated. My own contribution was somewhat overshadowed.

Peter Parfitt

When Parfitt began his career in 1956, Compton's was coming to an end. They were team-mates only briefly but mates thereafter and the great man still forms an essential part of Parfitt's magnificent after- dinner speeches.

IN 1955 in the month of June on a Wednesday you were either in the county side, preparing to play for England or dropped. On one such day at noon Denis walked into the Bull at Gerrards Cross for an imbibition. They were delighted to see him but somebody wondered if Denis wasn't playing in the Test match due to start the following day at Old Trafford. The penny suddenly dropped with Denis. He was, and not only that, but he was due at net practice at 1pm. He left, persuaded a pal to fly him up north and eventually arrived at Manchester in the early evening too late for nets, but in time for dinner. Having left in such a rush he had no kit and went out in borrowed kit, including the bat. He made 158. In 1956 I was new to the Middlesex dressing-room. Although I played the first 14 matches I was then left out and became 12th man. This was a job the main duties of which were going out on to the pitch to take messages from either Compo or Bill Edrich. Usually, this consisted of taking down their bet for the 3.30 at Kempton Park and then making sure that it was placed. The trouble with this was that if you were successful at it you could then expect to be 12th man all year. Denis was kindness personified but autocratic in the changing-room. He was so good that he didn't mind whose equipment he used. Any did for him. I was sitting on the balcony once with my gloves by my side and how I flapped when I realised he was out in the middle with my bat.

Laurie Scott

The former Arsenal and England full-back won 17 caps, and played in the 1950 FA Cup final with Compton, which Arsenal won. He was 80 on the day Compton died.

WHEN I first came down to London from Bradford I lived in digs. I hadn't been married long and when my wife joined me Denis's mum and dad Harry and Jessie took us both under their wing. They really couldn't have been kinder. Denis was a real character from the start, completely different from his brother Leslie. But you wanted them both on your side. He didn't play that much for Arsenal [54 League matches post-war and four rounds of their FA Cup run, including the final in 1950] but we appeared in a couple of wartime matches together for representative sides. We both played when we beat Scotland 8-0 in 1944 and then again in the Victory International at Hampden Park when the Scots won 2-1. Denis was skilful but he didn't have much of a right foot so he went on the outside all the time. But it was when I got a rare chance to play against him that I found out more. We were direct opponents in a big match at Wembley between the RAF and the Army, me at right-back, Denis as left-winger. The match was to raise money for the Red Cross. We had a bit of a laugh together but we both wanted to do well. He was tough to knock off the ball unless you timed your tackle well and he was immensely strong. Lean on him and you fell over. I found that much out in the match, which has always been my main memory of him. We went up for a ball, collided, and I ended up with a black eye. Given a shiner by the great Denis Compton.