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