April 30, 2012

'I don't care what I look like, I want to give the bowlers nothing'

Somerset's Nick Compton is an an old-school scrapper whose timeless virtues are paying dividends

It is not, perhaps, so much the Compton name that should be capturing the imagination, but the Compton style. The emergence - or the re-emergence - of Nick Compton is relevant not because it evokes memories of his grandfather Denis but because it has shown the value of a style of play that was becoming endangered in the domestic game. In an age of disposable cricket, Nick Compton was built to last. In an age of bashers and dashers, Compton offers reliability. As Brian Rose, Somerset's director of cricket, put it: "The way Compton plays forward-defensive and backward-defensive is as good as I have seen." Bearing in mind Rose opened the batting for England with Geoff Boycott and captained Viv Richards at Somerset, that is high praise indeed.

Compton's qualities may sound prosaic, but they are as timeless as they are priceless. His judgement about which balls to leave outside off stump is excellent, his defence - off front and back foot - could keep out the rain, and his powers of concentration would shame a security camera. Whereas many contemporary batsmen look for the shortcut to success by trying to hit their way out of trouble - the get-rich-quick version of batting - Compton is content to wear the bowlers down, see the shine off the ball and wait.

Those qualities, unfashionable though they may have become, remain as valuable as ever. At a time when the techniques of a generation of England batsmen have been exposed - both on the spin-friendly surfaces of Asia and the seam-friendly surfaces of England - Compton provides a timely reminder that there is another way. Bowler-friendly conditions tend to separate the wheat from the chaff, and while the majority have flashed and snicked, Compton has followed his 1000 runs last year - he was one of the first to the milestone - with over 700 already this year. If it wasn't for his name, the comparisons would all be with Jonathan Trott and Jacques Kallis.

The Kallis comparison pleases Compton. He refers to the South African as "the biggest influence of my life" and admits to spending hours in front of the mirror emulating Kallis. For all the self-deprecating talk, though, Compton has a pleasing drive and cuts and pulls unusually well. He is not, by Test standards, particularly strong off his legs, but so keen is his desire to play straight and avoid leg-before dismissals - a weakness in the past - that a few sacrifices have had to be made.

Compton also has one significant advantage over most of his rivals for a Test spot: he can bat anywhere from one to six. He is currently batting No. 3 for Somerset, but has spent much of his career opening. He is pressing as much for Andrew Strauss' position as Ravi Bopara's.

His mantra is simple. "I keep saying to myself, 'Give these bowlers nothing,'" he told ESPNcricinfo. "Even after I reach my hundred, I say to myself, 'Give these bowlers nothing.' I don't care what I look like, I just want to give them nothing."

That is not to say Compton cannot improvise. He scooped Brett Lee for six during the Champions League last year, and as he accelerated towards Somerset's declaration at Trent Bridge, demonstrated a surprisingly large range of strokes and an ability change gears: his first century took 241 deliveries; his second just 81. But just because you have 50 shirts in the cupboard, doesn't mean you have to wear them all at once, does it? For the majority of the time, Compton plays the percentages. He adores batting. He is greedy for runs. He puts a high price on his wicket. Those are good qualities for a Test batsman.

There is, Compton says, "an unsung hero" in his story. Neil Burns, who kept wicket for Somerset among others, has been a mentor since 2005. The pair have spent many, many hours in the nets and talking about building "a package" that would turn Compton into a player of international class.

"I was disillusioned when he got hold of me," Compton said. "I had played a bit of first-team cricket and I was impatient for more. I remember him saying to me, 'What have you actually done?' It brought me back down to earth when I realised I hadn't actually done anything. So we spent six months just working on my defence. It was the most uncomfortable six months of my life, but we built a new package, really, all based on the understanding that it doesn't matter how good your cover drive or your pull is if you can't stay out there. I wanted to play the one ball I faced with as much quality as I could to make sure I could play another ball. I scored 1300 runs that season.

"I lost track of that a bit. Kevin Pietersen came on the scene and everyone wanted to bat like him. I tried to dominate, but that wasn't my strength. My strength is to bat for long periods of time."

Compton's call-up to the Lions squad is, as he put it, "a stop on the journey". It is not the destination. "I have unfinished business for the rest of the year," he said. "I'm on a journey and it is far from finished."

He has been here before. After six centuries in the 2006 season, he won selection on that winter's A tour. He performed well, too, but with the realisation that an England place was tantalisingly close, he lost focus. Not helped by some clumsy handling by Middlesex, the next two seasons brought no centuries and just three scores over 50. Dropped from the first Middlesex side - what he calls a "crushing, devastating" experience - he ended up playing club cricket. It seemed his chance had gone.

"I'd love to play for England. I'd bite your arm off. But it's also a distraction. The disappointment I experienced in the past was devastating and I don't want to feel like that again"

"I put a huge amount of pressure on myself after coming back from a successful Lions tour and I really wanted to kick on," he said. "Looking back, though, I was far too intense. I was trying to attain perfection, and I'm not sure that exists in cricket. I got into a downward spiral. I wanted it all too badly.

"I'm not 21 now. I've played a bit. I'm focused on the immediacy of my career. I'm focused on fulfilling my role for Somerset as well as I can. You learn.

"I'm a calmer person now and I've settled on a formula that works for me. If I get caught up in aesthetics it takes me down the wrong path.

"I know this might very well be my last chance. Neil said, 'You'll get one chance at this.' And of course I'm excited. I'd love to play for England. I'd bite your arm off. But it's also a distraction. The disappointment I experienced in the past was devastating and I don't want to feel like that again. Captaincy is something I'd like to do in the future. And winning the Championship is a huge aim for everyone at Somerset. But I need to focus on the next ball. Anything else is a distraction."

Leaving London and Lord's - a ground where the Compton name appears on a stand and where he had a year remaining on his contract - at the end of 2009 was a brave move. But, as Compton said, "the ambitions of Middlesex didn't match mine". He was coaxed to Taunton first by Justin Langer, who liked the fight in him, and then by Rose, who saw in him a man who would complement Somerset's array of strokemakers. He wanted Compton to occupy the crease and concentrate on batting for long periods of time. It is working, too: Compton has faced 1407 balls in first-class cricket this summer: no one else has faced more than 716.

"I was a bit surprised by Mark Ramprakash's comments about pitches," Compton said. "He seemed to be saying that it makes batsmen want to have a go at the ball, but I've gone the other way with it. It's made me more aware of technique and defence and doing the basics right.

"I smile sometimes when I see people practise. They tend to practise attacking the ball. They practise in perfect conditions and they like to express their talent and hit the ball. But how much help is that when you play on a pitch where the ball nips around? And how many players in county cricket can bat for a day or a day and a half? There's Cook, there's Trott, but there aren't many others. I enjoy taking on the responsibility to bat through the innings and provide the foundations for the rest of the team.

"There are so many strokemakers down here. Brian Rose wanted me to provide the foundations for them to bat around and I've grown into it. I believe in foundations. I know that if I spend a lot of time at the crease, the runs will come. I feel I'm a strokemaker too, but that isn't the role the team need me to fill."

Compton knows he will never emulate the success of his grandfather. But, if he completes 1000 runs before the end of May - thereby becoming the first man to achieve the feat since Graeme Hick in 1988 - he will have achieved something that Denis never managed.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • John on May 1, 2012, 21:23 GMT

    I think he has got the ability to change gears if the situation demands it. Vs Notts , him and Hildreth did so , only for the rain to undo all their good work

  • Matthew on May 1, 2012, 8:08 GMT

    It's amazing that people are mentioning Compton's age as he's only 28. Ed Cowan was 28 or 29 when he made his debut for Australia last year so where's the problem. if you are in good nick then it shouldn't matter what age you are. Some players are late bloomers and don't come good until their late twenties or even their early thirties. I'm happy to see Nick in with a shout - he looks a gritty and determined player with a sound technique a la Cook and Trott and, like them, is capable of putting big scores on the board.

  • John on May 1, 2012, 7:24 GMT

    @AdrianVanDenStael, I agree with much of what you say but, unless Strauss actually retires, I don't see a spot in the top 3 becoming available for anyone. If Compton was to come in and Bell remain then I doubt that they'd change the order. If Bell was left out then I don't see them moving Pietersen down so Compton would bat no higher than #5. Regarding Bell, it's certainly not the case that he has hesitated to come in above #4. He has stated that he wants to bat at #3 and he did make a case for it when Trott was injured against India. He simply didn't bat well at #3 early in his career but could be ready to do so now. Unfortunately for him, I don't see them moving Trott down and he hasn't batted well anywhere since that India series. If Strauss did retire I wonder whether they'd open with Trott and play Bell at #3 or maybe open with Compton. I reckon Strauss has at least one more summer and probably one more winter in him at least though.

  • R on May 1, 2012, 7:04 GMT

    Bell's walk back to the pavilion is a more familiar sight for sure... Bell and Bopara have been given plenty of chances and not nailed their positions, take away Bell's easy Bangladesh runs (Ave 158), and take away Bopara's easy WI runs (Ave 125) and there is not much there, eg 32 & 15 respectively v Aus.... They are repeatedly not men for crises. But perhaps Compton might be, I like the fact he can change gears through his hundreds and let's hope he can bat successfully with a strong tail, something Bell (in particular) and Bopara have been hopeless at. Coming in at 5 or 6 and seeing off the second new ball may also be right up Compton's street.

  • paul on April 30, 2012, 18:07 GMT

    I'll be honest I wouldn't have him opening, I know he's done it a fair bit but I believe his game as improved since he's moved down the order. I wouldn't have any problem with him playing in the middle order and personally would much prefer him to Ravi any day of the week. He's mentally stronger or at least seems it, has a stronger defense and his improvements he's made in leaving of the ball imo is what's turned him into a potential international player. His game in the one day form is a clear indication that if needs be he can cut loose and score faster if needs be. As a player he is uncannily like Trott, in the way he plays and the fact he developed quite late into a very good player.

  • Andrew on April 30, 2012, 16:39 GMT

    Good to see Nick in with a shout. I think every top six needs a balance of grinders and strokemakers. If he understands what he is about then it's time to put him in instead of Bell or at number 6. England's bowling attack suggests that no matter how quickly they score runs, as long as they get enough they will be in a position to win.

    There are a lot of young pretenders around, but Compton's weight of runs are difficult to ignore.

  • Michael on April 30, 2012, 13:51 GMT

    I am wondering, jmc, about the weaknesses of available top order batsmen, as Vaughan noted recently. England have batters queueing up to play in the middle to lower order, which is not surprising because generally you come in when the shine's off the ball. Batters like Pietersen, Bell and Morgan who love to come in and play flashy shots have hesitated to come in any higher than 4 or 5 (Bell averages 39.9 in 3 at tests, 54.2 at 5 or 6). The problem is that someone has to be prepared to bat higher up; there's only room in a side for 2 (or perhaps 1 ...) specialist batter(s) at 5 and 6. It seems to me that if a player with a few years' experience behind him and as vaunted a defensive technique as Compton is likely to be of any use to England it's batting higher up. As Mr Dobell says of Compton: 'his defence - off front and back foot - could keep out the rain'. Well if he's going to achieve this target of 1000 first-class runs by the end of May, unless the weather improves, it may have to!

  • Rayner on April 30, 2012, 13:26 GMT

    29 this year, I don't think he is 'too old' as some might say as a batsman he should be able to play for another 3-5 years if he's fit. Sounds good to me as we need to keep a high price on our wickets for England and it gives KP, Prior and Bell the chance to play their own game and risk their wicket more in search of domination fo the bowlers... also I think that he could be a potential, short term, replacement for Strauss should he be unable to find any form of any type by the end of the summer. Although I think and hope he'll come back with some good knocks.

  • Dummy4 on April 30, 2012, 12:23 GMT

    Having witnessed England batsmen put the teams No1 status in serious jeopardy by getting out cheaply, I personally would have no objection seeing a top order without any "strokemakers", whatever they are, in it at all. I've seen Ian Bells cover drive and it's a thing of beauty. His walk back to the pavilion without reaching double figures is, sadly, an equally familiar sight. There is only one Kevin Pietersen, true, but I think a team with 5 Alistair Cooks in it would take some beating.

  • Bobby on April 30, 2012, 12:01 GMT

    I watched Compton bat on the second day of Somerset's match at Edgbaston three weeks ago and he inspired confidence throughout his innings. Really solid and dismissive of the short ball.

    He was equally composed at Trent Bridge the following week. In an early spell from Harry Gurney he looked challenged by the left arm over angle and the swinging ball, but he watched, waited, left, waited again and cashed in when the bad balls inevitably came. He's also a pretty nifty fielder around point.

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