Compton's fight can't ease his pain
Worcester became the setting for Nick Compton's last stand and it was a redoubtable last stand, too, as he tamed the Australians for the second time in a week. But he knew in his heart of hearts that it was futile resistance. He has already been formally told that England's Ashes plans lie elsewhere.
It would have taken a big hundred to leave England feeling slightly sheepish; it would have probably taken a triple hundred, batting blindfold, while reciting Corinthians backwards, to make them change their mind. Instead he made 79 in orderly fashion, upright of stance and upright in intentions, before he hauled a short ball from Jackson Bird to midwicket.
He dragged himself off the field slowly, not wanting to be out in a match in which, deep down, he had not particularly wanted to play. It was an inconsistent innings, with phases where he struggled for timing, but in what has become his personal mini Ashes series, he has taken the Australians for 194 in three goes.
He has seen off three new balls and worn down every Australian fast bowler in turn. He has responded to the pressure England have put him under with conviction. He could not have done much more. But England are determinedly looking elsewhere.
James Whitaker, the England selector, was on hand to keep up appearances, surely aware like everybody else that he was largely ticking boxes. Joe Root, England's new kid on the block will open the batting with Alastair Cook; Jonny Bairstow will be expected to add some dash at No 6, even though England's warm-up at Chelmsford illustrated the blindingly obvious: he has barely had a bat in his hand for the past nine months.
For Compton, Root's emergence as an England star in the making was a ticking time bomb. The question, though, is whether this bomb has exploded before its time.
At Worcester, they know a bit about Test trials; Graeme Hick used to go through them pretty much on an annual basis. Twenty years ago, when the ground was still regarded as the most idyllic in England, rather than the unsatisfying but necessary ground in transition of today, Hick confirmed his England place by stroking the Australians all around New Road, treating a young, blond legspinner with particular disdain. Then Shane Warne went to Old Trafford and bowled the Ball of the Century to Mike Gatting and things felt the same again.
For Compton, though, this was not a Test trial, it was simply a trial. Worcestershire were grateful to be bolstered by a batsman of his talent, but there was little immediate value in it. He announced himself against the fourth ball he faced with an emphatic cover drive against Bird; there were later periods when he struggled for timing. It was an innings which communicated that his desire to play for England remains as strong as ever, but he accepted afterwards that it would change nothing.
One sensed the Worcester crowd knew as much. New Road was packed to the gunnels, so much so that the PA announcer asked the crowd, in a formal, somewhat old-fashioned way, if they would not mind sitting a little closer together, but as Compton played what must have felt like the loneliest innings of his life there was no sense of gathering tension.
England are nothing if not meticulous. They successfully lobbied for Compton to guest for Worcestershire, only a week after he had encountered them for Somerset, not because they are having second thoughts, but because stuff happens: somebody could break a finger in a training mishap or have a seedy encounter with a Nottingham curry.
It is nine days now since the ECB released a statement from Geoff Miller, the national selector, that jarred in its finality. "We believe that Joe Root is currently the best opening partner for Alastair Cook and he will open the batting against Essex," it read. Essex = England = the first Investec Test. Perhaps the entire series. Perhaps the next ten years.
Minutes before the release was made, Compton's half-century had been invaluable as Somerset squeezed their first Championship win of the season on a treacherous surface at Derby. He had no inkling of what was to follow. He was deeply upset when Miller informed him he would not be opening at Trent Bridge and his hurt still ran deep when Andy Flower, England's team director, rang him the following day.
It must have felt surreal a day after that when Compton fulfilled a long-standing obligation for a photo shoot with England's captain, Alastair Cook. It had been envisaged as promotional material involving England's Ashes opening pair. It had become a stray entry in the diary that could not be scrubbed out. But it doubtless gave Compton more opportunity to discuss why England's view had changed.
England's mood about Compton shifted irreversibly after the last of his four failures against New Zealand, a tortuous 7 from 45 balls at Headingley, one which left his batting average at 32 after nine Tests.
Flower was in tetchy mood after the Test as he was pressed about England's desultory scoring rate on the Saturday evening, more careful than ever to ask the media to explain its questions. The concentration was on Jonathan Trott, but England's thoughts were already centred upon Compton, as if oblivious to the back-to-back hundreds he had made in New Zealand only a few weeks earlier.
The decision to omit Compton is one of the most clinical of Flower's reign. Marcus Trescothick, Somerset's captain, spoke for many when he called it unfair. But Flower had been taken by the verve shown by the Yorkshire pair, Root and Bairstow, in front of their home crowd. Michael Vaughan, an Ashes-winning England captain and Root's mentor, lobbied hard for him to open the batting, insisting that Ashes series had to be won with aggressive cricket.
Nobody has reflected, until now, that Compton had batted stoutly, and uncomplainingly, against New Zealand with a bruised rib and a fractured finger: the finger was broken before the Lord's Test against New Zealand when he fell victim to the dog-thrower utilised by the batting coach, Graham Gooch; the rib injury followed in the nets at Headingley before a rained-out first day. Neither was enough to put him out of the match; both were enough to put him out of sorts.
Against New Zealand, he was out of form. Somehow, from that simple fact, the idea has been allowed to take hold that his batting had become careworn and that, if he became psychologically tight against New Zealand, he could be even more affected during the pressure of an Ashes series. Compton, becalmed, it was felt, could place additional pressure on Cook, and that was a risk that England were not prepared to take.
That image is accentuated by his short forward stride - his batting signature, the most obvious technique that sets him apart. It transformed his career by making bowlers bowl in his favoured areas, but it can make him look static. When he returned to work with those who know his game best, such as Neil Burns and the unsung Somerset coach, Pete Sanderson, they reaffirmed that he should keep faith in it. On a slow Worcester pitch, that front foot movement looked solid.
Perhaps Compton has never quite answered the label that in essence he remains a county cricketer. It is a damaging reputation to have in these days of academies and forward planning.
They used to say the same about Hick (while giving him countless more Tests) and there is a deeper Hick comparison here, too, because last season he failed by a day to become the first player to make 1,000 first-class runs in an English season by the end of May, a feat last achieved by Hick, another southern African, in 1988.
He was told after Headingley to go back to Somerset and make runs. He has done just that, averaging 50-plus and taming England's best day-in, day-out county bowler, Graham Onions, by taking 166 off Durham at Taunton. He is right to think that he has done all that England requested.
In his three innings against the Australians, Compton has surely scotched the theory that he becomes tight when the pressure is on. He batted blissfully against them at Taunton - out to a brilliant catch and a debatable lbw decision - and at Worcester, if not quite as serene, life for the Australians became much simpler the moment he was out.
The question still nags: are Australia happy not be facing Compton at Trent Bridge? The indications still suggest that they are.
David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo