May 1988

The great entertainer

John Arlott paid tribute to Denis Compton on his 70th birthday in 1988

John Arlott paid tribute to Denis Compton on his 70th birthday in 1988

Denis Compton: he won popularity without obvious effort © Getty Images
Denis Compton, who is 70 on May 23, 1988, was one of those people one felt would never grow old. He is remembered chiefly as a cricketer of wide, allround gifts but, in act, he was a natural ball-games player. As an Arsenal outside-left, he played in 14 wartime soccer internationals for England, and his whole feeling for a ball was never more apparent than in his shooting, centring or passing on the volley; never easy, yet he seemed infallible in it. To see him shoot from the wing was to be impressed by his gift.

Cricket, though, was the game at which he really expressed himself, while, as a human being, he attracted people of all ages, and both sexes, with his spontaneous charm. Well-built, indeed unusually sturdy for a winger, he was strong in the shoulders and the hips and had, as he used ruefully to admit, to train hard indeed to keep down to his active weight. Unaffectedly good-looking, he smiled easily, gave himself no airs, and made apparently little effort to hide his human frailties - particularly his absentmindedness - and he won popularity without obvious effort. Crucially, while he laughed - even in Test matches he was hail-fellow-well-met with all opponents - there was a superb streak of steel in him. That was never more apparent than at Old Trafford in 1948. He top-edged a rising ball from Ray Lindwall into his face, retired only briefly and returned, his wound all too apparent, to score 145 not out in an England total of only 363.

To begin at the main entry-point Denis Charles Scott Compton was barely 18 in 1936 when he embarked on his first season of county cricket with Middlesex as a slow left-arm bowler. Initially he batted at No. 11, though those who had seen him make hundreds in junior cricket recognised that he was better than that. Nevertheless, even his friends must have been surprised that he made 1000 runs in that season - as indeed he was to do 16 more times, three times on overseas tours.

In his second season, in 1937, at 19, he played for England against New Zealand at the Oval, when he was run out for 65. That was his perpetual peril. It was Trevor Bailey who said `A call for a run from Compton should be treated as no more than a basis for negotiation.' The next year, in the First Test against Australia, he joined that small company who have scored centuries on first appearance against the old enemy, with 102 at Trent Bridge. From then until 1956-57 he was a regular Test choice for England except when his footballing commitments kept him off an overseas tour. His last Test against Australia came at the Oval in 1956, when he was top-scorer in the first innings with 94 and made 35 not out in the second. It was not lack of ability but an injury known in the Press as `the Compton knee' that made him limp through much of the latter part of his first-class career, and eventually put an end to it.

In between, he had made money both inside and outside cricket and football, and will be remembered as featuring in one of the first of the series of Brylcreem posters, but that made no scrap of difference to his ease with all people. As a batsman, there was no doubt of his greatness. He contrived, somehow, to look both humanly vulnerable and commanding. One remembers his leg-glances; his apparently dangerous sweep which brought him so many runs and so rarely cost him his wicket; the surprising power of his drives, executed with no apparent effort. He had, though, all the strokes when he cared to use them and he played them with the air of a man enjoying himself. As a bowler, he was basically an orthodox left-arm spinner, but he very soon - and characteristically - embraced wrist-spin, the chinaman and its complementary googly; though in South Africa, in 1948-49, he reverted to orthodox slow left-arm at England's need in the Third Test a Newlands. Then he bowled 25.2 overs for 70 runs and took five wickets; an immensely steady and craftsmanlike performance.

Compton in action at The Oval in 1953 © Getty Images
His batting and his popularity were never greater than in 1947. It was the sunny summer of a South African tour, and with his henchman, Bill Edrich, he took runs galore for Middlesex and England off all opponents, but especially the tourists. In that summer Compton set records with 18 centuries and an aggregate of 3816 at 90.86; he still found time to take 73 wickets. Just as it had been said that when W. G. Grace was not out at Lord's, the bells of the hansom cabs tinkled all the way up to St John's Wood Road as cricket-followers from the City and the West End went up to watch him, so did London and its visitors react to the heady entertainment of Edrich and, especially, Compton at Lord's. The mood was there, because a nation was now returned from war, and those two batsmen heightened it quite gloriously.

It was in 1948 that Denis Compton and Keith Miller, best of friends off the field, mounted their contest between Miller's pace, with his terrifying bouncer, and Compton's cheerful and fearless batting, which did not eschew the hook played from in front of his eyes. If theirs was a most spectacular friendship and rivalry, Compton had friends and rivals, and indeed, delighted and enthusiastic followers, all over the cricket world.

The tendency with those who write about Denis Compton is to concentrate on his charm, his pose of fallibility and his easy way with cricket and life. His statistics, though, tell a very different story of courage, graft and effort wearing a cloak of charm and ease. His two great international seasons were - and this is the acid test of all England cricketers - against Australia: in 1946-47 and 1948, on a losing side, he scored respectively 459 runs at 51.00, and 562 at 62.44. He went on the tour of South Africa in 1948-49 and - in a match this writer might have seen and did not - scored 300 in three hours against Nort-Eastern Transvaal at Benoni, the fastest triple-century ever recorded in the first-class game.

Overall he made 38,942 runs at 51.85, with 123 centuries, and took 622 wickets at 32.27, and made 415 catches: in Tests, 5807 runs at 50.06, with 17 centuries, and 25 wickets at 56.40, plus 49 catches. In 1947 at home, in his 3816 runs at 90.86, were glimpses of him at his greatest; in 1948, the Australian year, his 2415 runs came at 61.92; and in South Africa that winter he made 1781 at 84.81. Against Australia, he had, of course, a tragic series in 1950-51, when he scored only 53 runs in eight innings. Nevertheless, overall, his average against them was 42.84 for 1842 runs, with five centuries. Against South Africa he averaged 53; against New Zealand 46, West Indies 49, India 51 and Pakistan, in a single series, 90.60. In County Championship matches he scored 20,174 runs at 49.81 and, returning against Australia in 1956, he played two innings (one not out) for a freak Test average of 129.00.

For Middlesex- and he was, above all, a Middlesex man and a Lord's product - he made 21,701 at 50.35 ... one could go on producing remarkable figures but, having set them down, the point to make above all is that this man clearly enjoyed his cricket and so did those who watched it. This is not to say there was never a better player but, surely, none ever took greater pleasure from it nor gave the cricket-followers of the world greater pleasure for so many years.