August 10, 2014

The un-English flair of Denis Compton

The antithesis of the dour English batting stereotype, Compton wowed fans and peers with his ability to play all the shots in the textbook and several outside of it

Denis Compton: brilliant and unorthodox © Getty Images

It is interesting to reflect on the stereotypes that exist with respect to the various batting "styles" of players from certain countries, like the Calypso flair regularly argued to be inherent to cricketers from the West Indies.

Some of these archetypes are somewhat self-explanatory: for example the back-foot dominance of Australian players stems from faster, bouncy pitches, while the wristy elegance of batsmen from the subcontinent reflects lower and slower tracks. However, one of the strongest stereotypes of all is the technically proficient but dour English professional. From the days of Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe through Len Hutton and Ken Barrington to Geoff Boycott, there are many exemplars of this concept, and yet relatively few examples of glorious strokemakers. However, every now and again, a player comes along who doesn't simply break the public's "thought mould", he smashes it into tiny pieces.

David Gower, and more recently, Kevin Pietersen, are examples of English players who manage to bypass convention and play in a manner that delighted the crowds more than the technical purists.

However, the legendary Denis Compton established this precedent, and with Pietersen's recent exile from the international arena, it seemed timely to reflect on another man who completely defied the accepted custom of what constitutes "English" batting over 60 years ago.

Compton was born only a few miles from Lord's on May 23, 1918. As was commonplace in London during the 1920s, Denis grew up playing ball games such as street cricket and soccer*. These less-formal but still very competitive matches were supplemented by structured school coaching in his years at Bell Lane Elementary School. As with many of the truly great cricketers, his talent with any ball sport was evident at a very early age.

When just 14, Denis appeared for a combined Elementary Schools side against a team sponsored by former first-class cricketer Carleton Fowell Tufnell at Lord's. Opening the batting with another future Test cricketer in Arthur McIntyre, Denis made a brilliant 114 out of a team total of 208. While he batted right-handed, Denis bowled left-arm legspin, and he showed his all-round potential by taking 2 for 5 in dismissing the CF Tufnell XI for just 56.

Even as a 16-year-old, Denis was demonstrating early signs of his genius with the bat at the senior level. He was selected to make his first-class debut on May 30, 1936, one week after his 18th birthday. The captain, Walter Robbins, choosing to put Denis down at No. 11 in the order, and chasing Sussex's total of 185, Denis joined No. 10 Gubby Allen at the pitch with the score at 162 for 9. The pair calmly added the necessary 24 runs to get the first-innings lead and majority of the points from an ultimately rain-interrupted match.

Denis' career was off and running, and he was immediately elevated into the middle order for the remainder of the season. He played a total of 20 first-class matches in 1936, scoring 1004 runs at an average of 34.62, including his initial first-class century against Northamptonshire. Denis built upon this performance the following season, scoring nearly 2000 first-class run at 47.14, Like many young players, he was not a prolific century scorer at this stage. Denis scored three centuries in 1937, but passed 50 another 16 times. However, it was not the magnitude of his runs that was gathering national attention, it was the style. He was able to play strokes all around the ground and with distinctive flair that delighted spectators. One captain, John Warr, summed up his unique batting techniques by suggesting that Denis had clearly "read the textbook upside down".

It was the selector's capacity to spot his potential that saw him rewarded with selection for England to play against New Zealand in the third Test in August. The three-day match was ultimately a tame draw, but Denis made a fine international debut in making 65 and taking 2 for 34.

Denis kept his fine first-class form going in 1938 and was duly chosen to play the first Test against Don Bradman's Australians. He was still only 19, but he showcased his undoubted talent by making a century in just his second Test, in a high-scoring draw at Trent Bridge. His other notable batting performance in the series was a rear-guard undefeated 76 on a rain-affected pitch at Lord's. Denis did not maintain those heights in the remaining matches, but he finished with respectable figures of 214 runs at 42.80. He was recognised for his efforts by being named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1939.

In the three Tests against West Indies in 1939, Denis scored 189 runs at 63, which included his first Test century at his home ground of Lord's. Like many players of the era, Denis lost many of his most productive Test years to World War II. He was enlisted into the army and was posted for service in India in 1944. In 1945, he played three first-class games for Holkar - the third being the timeless final of the Ranji Trophy. Modern bowlers may complain about unresponsive pitches; Holkar made 360 and 492 in their two innings and still lost by the small matter of 374 runs. Denis made an unbeaten 249, but this was trumped by the Indian great Vijay Merchant, who made 278. It was during his time in India through first-class matches against Australian Services that Denis first met and started a lifelong friendship with Australian Keith Miller.

Test cricket resumed for England in 1946 against a touring Indian side. Almost all attention however was focussed on the upcoming 1946-47 visit to Australia. Ultimately, the tour was a disaster for England and they were comprehensively beaten by a team again captained by Bradman. Denis was one of the few shining lights for England, scoring 459 runs at 51 with two centuries. In the 1947 county season, Denis scored an astonishing 3816 runs in 30 matches (with 18 hundreds) at an average of 90.85, setting a run-scoring record that stands to this day.

Perhaps two of his finest innings were against Australia in 1948. England were again comprehensively outplayed by the tourists, but Denis showed amazing skill in scoring a quite brilliant 184 at Trent Bridge and then amazing courage in his unbeaten 145 at Old Trafford, where he had been forced to retire hurt following a nasty blow to the head from a bouncer from Ray Lindwall. He came back after being stitched up, and with England in significant problems, Denis proceeded to take the attack back to the opposition fast bowlers, including his old friend Miller.

Denis was also a fine soccer player who scored 16 goals in 60 league appearances for Arsenal. He was good enough to be selected for England in 12 internationals, however, all were during the war period and are not classed as "official" caps. During his soccer career he did win an FA Cup with Arsenal, but he also sustained a serious knee injury in 1939 in a match against Charlton. This injury culminated in his kneecap being removed in 1956. He continued playing Test cricket until 1957. During this period he played some magnificent innings, such as his highest Test score of 278 against Pakistan in 1954, but he also had some disastrous series, such as the 1950-51 Ashes in which he totalled just 53 runs at 7.57.

His main rival for the title of best English batsman during this era, Len Hutton, commented that Denis "plays every shot in the textbook - many, too, which are not there". Possibly his final great performance was the stunning 94 when recalled to the English side for the fifth Test against Australia in 1956 at age 38.

Compton's numbers were just as impressive as his strokeplay © Getty Images

He finished Test cricket having played 78 matches, scoring 5807 runs at an average of 50.06 with 17 centuries. His allrounder status is often overlooked, as he also took 622 first-class wickets at an average of around 30 with his left-arm leggies.

His Test batting average of over 50 is highly laudable, as not many players of his ilk are able to achieve this level of constancy. However, it was the manner of his batting and the delight he brought to spectators that raises Denis from the realms of great players into the legend category.

Trevor Bailey described him as "the most brilliant and most unorthodox" batsman that he had played with or against, while Bradman noted as early as 1950 that Denis "does things that are unexpected and which no one else can copy… you notice that he is so different and superior, perhaps, to his contemporaries". Jim Laker recounted a story in which the English team were discussing the seven wonders of the world, but they couldn't recall the final one. It was agreed, following an initial suggestion from Colin Cowdrey, that Denis Compton's sweep shot was the forgotten wonder.

Genius is often recognised through its capacity to diverge from mainstream thinking and Denis Compton remains perhaps the finest counter-example of the "English" batting stereotype.

*And before I get deluged with abusive messages about my temerity in calling it soccer not "football", I am simply using the same word that Denis Compton himself used to describe the round-ball game.

Stuart Wark works at the University of New England as a research fellow

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