Locked-up Compton needs to find his past
There was a little piece of history at Lord's today. A Compton batted for England. Not since 1955 had this been the case and that Compton, the irresistible Denis of the clan, was in the throes of goodbye. Then it was DCS, now, 58 years on, it is his grandson NRD.
During the golden summer of 1947, Denis Charles Scott Compton made 3,816 runs for Middlesex in the Annus Mirabilis to end all Mirabilises. Not even Bill Edrich, the straight man to Compton's genius, could catch his pal though he had a good go, making 3,539 of his own. Compton got him on hundreds too - 18 to 12 - and with an average of 90.85 was about 10 points ahead of the man to whom he never stopped giving much of the credit for their storyline together.
The two of them brought a smile to the face of a nation depressed by war. All summer the sun shone, the crowds flocked and Denis ran the fielders ragged at one end while Bill accumulated wisely at the other. A devastatingly good-looking fellow, Compton played with a dash and dare given to few. His sweep strokes from straight balls drew gasps of admiration; his dancing feet brought swoons of joy. Neville Cardus wrote: "Never have I been so touched on a cricket field as I was in the heavenly summer of 1947. Each stroke a flick of delight, a propulsion of happy, sane, healthy life. There were no rations in an innings by Compton."
And really, you could not see a greater contrast in batsmanship than between that Compton and this. Nicholas Richard Denis, whose weight of runs for Somerset last summer won him a place in both India and New Zealand last winter, appears to have rationed himself. While Denis traded on the charms of improvisation, so Nick has taken introspection as his friend. Within it, is resolution - a strength given to those with more limited natural gifts. And for it to be effective, for dreams to be reached, a masochistic denial is applied. But resolution is not enough.
Recently chosen as one of Wisden's five cricketers of the year, NRD has the Ashes ambition etched on his forehead. With every step and twitch, with each forward block and backward glance, the desperation for that glory manifests itself. So badly does Compton want Test match runs that he seemed to forget how to find them. Today, his first in an England shirt at Lord's, he protected his wicket, little more. In doing so, he played cricket practice not cricket. Yes, he must sell himself dearly for it is his greatest asset but, equally, he cannot become so insular that the sale overtakes the task.
Last summer, he made 1,494 runs for Somerset at the remarkable average of 99.60 - a better average per innings than Grandpa in 1947. In India he fought magnificently in unfamiliar surroundings. In New Zealand, he made back to back hundreds. Three times, between 2001 and 2006, he won the Denis Compton Award given to the most promising Middlesex player. What a special taste that must have had. In the early years his style was more Denis than Nick. Then a move to the West Country fields gave succour to his ambition. The method was rethought, the runs flowed consistently if less glamorously.
So why this season's fear? Desire that's all. He wants an England place so badly, he has locked up. The shoulders are tense, the hands tight on the bat, the teeth grinding at each other like upper and lower enemies. Be free Nick, be free. Let it go. What will be, will be.
All of this is by way of explanation. What cannot be unravelled is the moment of madness that cost his wicket today. Half the winter spent resisting Indian spin and oops, left-arm slow Bruce Martin lobs one up outside off-stump and Compo has a wild and windy whoosh at it. There is no telling with sportsmen. Probably, he was trying for the freedom of expression that even those of us watching craved. Perhaps, he sensed our excruciation. Maybe he thought, to hell with it, the spinner has to go.
Any which way, it was Compton who went, caught at cover after a shot so out of kilter that we may never see it again. Lesson learnt. He lives to a fight another day or nine. For sure, the selectors will give him these two New Zealand matches to seal the Ashes deal. To do so, he must find his previous Somerset mind in an England shirt. The spotlight is a demanding place in which to find yourself. It asks questions that don't automatically answer themselves. You have the character Nick, you have done fantastic things with it before. Go show us your game.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK