Denis Compton was not only one of cricket's finest batsmen but as great an entertainer as the sport has seen. Perhaps no man, and certainly no sportsman, did more for English morale than Compton and his batting in the aftermath of the Second World War. During the long hot summer of 1947, which followed an unfairly ferocious winter, he nourished the nation in no small way by enjoying - so visibly - a more opulent season than anyone has known in the history of the first class game. It is no exaggeration to say that Compton brought back a feeling of gaiety to a ravaged people as no propaganda film, or even Churchillian speech, could have done.
In his summer of summers Compton scored 3,816 first class runs, at an average of 90.85 per innings, which surpassed by some 300 runs the old aggregate by Tom Hayward; while his 18 centuries surpassed the 16 made by Sir Jack Hobbs in 1925. (Both records will be impossible to beat so long as the English season retains its present shape.)
Most of his runs were made in the name of Middlesex or of England, but in anything other than the literal sense they were scored on behalf of all cricket followers in the country. For in his prime Compton was the most daring, and spectacular, exponent of that old-fashioned cricket which was played below the height of the bails, without thigh or chest protector, let alone a helmet. And the joy that he generated was the more, as he little knew the effect he had.
His "Middlesex Twin", Bill Edrich (who died in 1986), was almost as effective in 1947. But, as R.C. Robertson-Glasgow wrote at the time: "Compton is poetry; Edrich is prose, robust and clear." Together they were partners in many an adventure, not only their third- wicket stand of 370 for England against South Africa in 1947, or their 424 for Middlesex against Somerset in 1948, both records which still stand. When on tour they roistered with a vitality which the tabloids today would never allow in English cricketers. The jest was made that "Compo" was best man at Bill Edrich's third wedding, and third man at his best wedding.
The tourists in 1947 were the South Africans, for whom Compton always had a special affinity (his first wife, Doris, came from there). In the five Tests, but only eight innings, he hit them for four centuries, while his aggregate of 753 remains a record for an England player in a home series. But again it was the way he batted which mattered most, for he communicated his enjoyment to the largest crowds which have ever flocked to English cricket. If his style can be defined, it was a cross between the classicism of Wally Hammond and the eccentricity of Derek Randall, as Compton made forays down the pitch to sweep the spinners or cover-drive the quicker bowlers, before flicking back the famous Brylcreemed hair and giving another boyish grin.
Not only casual spectators, but critics who should have been better informed, made the false assumption that Compton's brilliance was straight from nature. In fact he worked immensely hard to develop his gifts, when a boy on the MCC ground staff at Lord's. In his autobiography, End of an Innings (1958), he wrote:
Even those of my shots that cricket writers most like to describe as unorthodox - for instance, my habit of walking or running down the pitch to spinners - have been practised hour after hour, day after day, in the nets . . . I was too keen to succeed in both cricket and football to leave more to chance than was absolutely necessary.
Even before he joined the Lord's staff at the age of 15, Compton had been marked down as a special talent. The previous summer he had played his first game at Lord's, as captain of an Elementary Schools XI, and scored 114 in front of Sir Pelham Warner. Bowling in the nets at MCC members, he also learnt left-arm unorthodox spin, with which he was to take 622 first class wickets at an average of 32, although he was always too erratic for the highest level. In the winters he was on the Arsenal ground staff, trying to emulate Cliff Bastin and Alex James at Highbury, as well as Patsy Hendren and Jack Hearne at Lord's.
Making his first class debut for Middlesex when not quite 18, Compton went on to reach 1,000 runs in 1936, the youngest to have done so. The following season, when 19, he was capped by England against New Zealand, and was run out for 65: but for all the image of scattiness, he was run out only twice more in his Test career. In 1938 he and Len Hutton were introduced as young blood against Australia, and both made centuries in the first Test (Compton was dropped by Don Bradman before he had scored). But England were not to regain the Ashes until 1953, when Compton made the winning hit at the Oval.
Generally, though, Compton was not ideally suited to Test cricket with Australia, admitting that the game as played by Bradman - and subsequently by Hutton - was too ruthless and too negative for his liking. He had a technical weakness too, moving too far over to the offside when leg-glancing and hitting the ball in the air. He averaged 50 in Tests over all, but only 42 against Australia, whereas Hutton against the oldest enemy maintained the same average of 56 that he had overall. After the war, if not before, Hutton settled for effectiveness, while Compton could not help retain some sense of fun. It is extraordinary, and yet in this sense appropriate, that Hutton and Compton only once stayed together long enough to share a century partnership in Test cricket, and that was against the West Indies in 1939.
Still, a few of Compton's finest innings did come against Australia, most notably his two centuries in 1948. In the Nottingham Test, having missed a sweep in his first innings and been bowled for 0, he scored 184 and was close to saving the game when he slipped and fell on his wicket. In the third at Old Trafford he was hit on the head by Ray Lindwall, to return after stitches as a bandaged hero and to inspire England from 119 for 5 wickets to 363 all out. He himself finished on 145 not out, although Lindwall in his flower shop in Brisbane years later pointed out that Compton had been hit by a slower ball which he had top-edged.
The deterioration of Compton's right knee affected his later performances against all countries. The trouble had started when he had collided with the Charlton Athletic goalkeeper in 1938-39, but did not really trouble him until the winter of 1949-50, his last in professional football. Weeks after his Arsenal career had culminated in an FA Cup medal as their left- wing, he had some bone removed from his right knee and was left with reduced mobility. In 1950-51 Compton suffered one of the worst series by any England batsmen when he averaged seven against Australia. After 1949, although relatively consistent, he hit only four more Test centuries before his retirement in 1957.
He became a cricket writer for the Sunday Express, where he needed less journalistic help than some former players, and a commentator for BBC Television, until his voice sounded a little too well lubricated. In later life his pronouncements on South Africa became ever more extreme, until he, Bill Edrich and the right-wing MP John Carlisle joined in calling on the MCC to send a touring party to South Africa during their exclusion from world cricket. To some extent he knew not what he did, for he had seen only the best of the country as a white touring Test cricketer in the Forties and Fifties.
If he became a typical case of a sportsman to be seen and not heard, Compton should be long remembered for what he did on the field. As Robertson-Glasgow wrote of Compton and Edrich at the end of their unique summer: "They go together in English cricket, as Gilbert and Sullivan go together in English opera. Nor is the analogy so careless as you might suppose . . . In the art of giving pleasure to English audiences, both pairs lack rival."
Or, in the words of Sir Neville Cardus:
When cricket was begun again, after the Hitler war, Compton in his wonderful years of 1946-47 expressed by his cricket the renewed life and hopes of a land and nation that had come out of the dark abyss.
In a period still sore and shabby and rationed, Compton spread his
happy favours everywhere. The
crowds sat in the sun, liberated from anxiety and privation. The strain of long years of affliction fell from all shoulders as Compton set the ball rolling or speeding or rippling right and left, as he leaned to it and swept it from the off round the leg boundary, as he danced forward or danced backwards, his hair tousled beyond the pacifying power of any cream or unguent whatsoever . . . yes, the crowd sunned themselves as much in Compton's batting as in the beneficial rays coming from the blue sky.
Men and women, boys and girls, cheered him to his century, and ran every one of his runs with him.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies