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Thursday 24 April 1997

A celebrity equalled by few sportsmen

By Christopher Martin-Jenkins

DENIS Compton, who died in hospital yesterday from complications after a third hip operation, had been inclined in his old age to crustiness about various trends in cricket and many of those who played it.

No doubt his strong opinions were sometimes due to pain from arthritis or the influence of the drink for which he had a healthy, though seldom excessive, thirst; at heart, this was a generous man as well as one with a rare genius for batting.

In recent years, as president of Middlesex, he was perhaps a shadow, albeit a heavy one, of the carefree Adonis of his prime sporting years, but still a household name. Little explanation was needed to watchers of any generation when John Cleese, as Basil Fawlty, exploded in indignation in an episode of Fawlty Towers and demanded of his wife, Sybil: "Whose fault is it then, Denis Compton`s?"

Such celebrity was the legacy of a sporting career of dazzling brilliance and charm and of the era in which it was played. Before the war, he had already appeared for Middlesex at the age of just 18, signed on as a fleet-footed winger for Arsenal, made 65 before being run out in his first Test at 19 against New Zealand and, a year later, in 1938, become the youngest Englishman to score a Test hundred against Australia.

It was in the years after the war, almost sepia tinted now, that he achieved a celebrity and popularity greater than any contemporary English cricketer and equalled by few current sportsmen anywhere. Such was the mood of national relief after the long years of war, and with television not to become familiar to most until the Coronation of 1953, that crowds for cricket and football were greater than ever before. At Highbury (he had gained wartime international caps for England) and at Lord`s, Compton was everyone`s hero: admired by men, adored by women, idolised by starry-eyed boys.

His open, friendly nature made him popular with team- mates and opponents as well as with those beyond the touchline or the boundary fence but fame brought problems that were insurmountable by one man. An entrepreneur named Bagenal Harvey offered to deal with his letters and from that grew the whole business of the sporting agent.

Compton`s most famous advertising contract was with the manufacturers of a hair-product. He was the original `Brylcreem boy`.

In his prime years as a batsman, he and Len Hutton were the twin pillars of the England team: Hutton the slightly austere master-craftsman, Compton the one with the happy-go- lucky image, the supreme entertainer with an orthodox, correct method but a rare imagination for exotic strokeplay.

Wonderfully quick on his feet, he played the ball late, his head right over the pitch of the ball and he was always associated with the sweep shot, played late and fine, with which he would confound spin bowlers. He was a more than useful bowler of unorthodox left-arm spin himself.

As late as 1954 he made 278 in a day for England against Pakistan at Trent Bridge but his most devastating innings was his 300 in 181 minutes against North Eastern Transvaal at Benoni during the MCC tour of South Africa in 1948-49, easily the fastest triple hundred ever scored.

All his life he loved South Africa, not least perhaps because it had sent the touring team to England in 1947 during his annus mirabilis. In that golden summer, he made more first-class runs, 3,816, and scored more centuries, 18, than any man before or since and both records are safe from extinction.

This writer, to his regret, recalls with clarity only a single innings, at the Oval in 1957 when he scored 24 for Middlesex against Surrey, handicapped by the famous "Compton Knee", the medical bulletins on which were virtually akin to those published when prime ministers fall ill or royal babies are due.

I remember the fact of watching Compton in the flesh more than the way he got his runs, but also the manner in which he walked into the pavilion, his dark hair a little tousled (despite the Brylcreem), his brown batting gloves held together in the same hand as his raised bat, acknowledging the applause of a crowd who knew they would not see him play much more.

If his most endearing characteristic was his warmth, his most infuriating was his vagueness. Such was his desire to please that he seldom said no to requests and many times after he retired he was expected to play in more than one charity match on the same day.

Peter Parfitt, the Middlesex and England batsman, has made a reputation for amusing after-dinner speeches purely on stories of the dressing-room as it was when he was a tyro and D C S Compton was God. Appropriately, Parfitt was a speaker at a major celebration in London for Compton`s 70th birthday. The story goes that the hero of the evening was called to the telephone by a lady who had heard about the dinner: eventually, he agreed to take the call. "Denis," she said, "it`s me, your mother. You`re not 70, you`re only 69."

He became a PR consultant, a cricket correspondent for the Sunday Express and a BBC commentator. He married three times and was a fond albeit absent-minded, husband and parent. Flags were at half-mast on every county ground where cricket was played yesterday. He had adorned them all.

Source :: The Electronic Telegraph (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/)

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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