The cavalier, 1958

Denis Compton

Denis Compton counts amongst those cricketers who changed a game of competitive and technical interest to sportsmen into a highly individual art that appealed to and fascinated thousands of men and women and boys and girls, none of whom possessed a specialist clue, none of whom could enter into the fine points of expert skill. He lifted cricket into an atmosphere of freedom of personal expression. The score-board seldom told you more than half the truth about what he was doing on the field of play. In an age increasingly becoming standardised, with efficiency the aim at the expense of impulse--for impulse is always a risk--Compton went his unburdened way, a law to himself.

Most cricketers, even some of the greatest, need the evidence of the score-board to demonstrate their gifts over by over; if they are not scoring, if they are compelled by steady bowling or by force of adverse circumstances to fall back on the textbook, they are certain, in such moments, to wear out the patience of all who are not vehemently partisans, or students of academic zeal and watchfulness.

Even a Sir Leonard Hutton or a Peter May needs to do well to convince the lay onlooker that he is really worth watching for hours. Compton fascinated all lovers of cricket, informed or uninformed, whether he was making runs or not, or whether he was taking wickets or not.

In fact, whenever Compton seemed seriously in trouble and under the necessity to work hard he was then even a more arresting spectacle than usual. As we watched him groping and lunging and running out of his ground before the ball was released, we were more than ever aware that here was no merely talented cricketer; here was one under the sway and in the thrall of incalculable genius. For it is certain that Compton often was as much in the dark as the rest of us as to why and how he came by his own personal achievements, how he added to a fundamentally sound technical foundation an unpredictable inspiration, as though grace descended on him.

Once in Australia he ran into a new bowler of curious variations of spin; I think the bowler was Iverson. Compton was momentarily visited by one of his moods of eccentric fallibility. He played forward as though sightless; he played back as though wanting to play forward. He apparently didn't quite know where he was or with what he was coping. At the other end of the wicket a comparative newcomer was batting steadily, but runs were not being scored quickly enough. So the young novice approached Compton between overs for instructions. "You go on just as you are," was Denis's advice. "You're playing well. I'll get on with the antics."

At his greatest--which is really to say most days in a season--he made batting look as easy and as much a natural part of him as the way he walked or talked. Versatility of stroke-play; swift yet, paradoxically, leisurely footwork; drives that were given a lovely lightness of touch by wristy flexion at the last second; strokes that were born almost before the bowler himself had seen the ball's length--all these were the signs of the Master. Yet the word Master in all its pontifical use was not applied to him but, in his period, reserved for Sir Leonard. The reason is that Compton's cricket always looked young, fresh and spontaneous. The resonant term Master implies a certain air of age and pompousness, a Mandarin authority and poise.

When cricket was begun again, after the Hitler war, Compton in his wonderful years of 1946-1947 expressed by his cricket the renewed life and hopes of a land and nation that had come out of the dark abyss. In a period still sore and shabby and rationed, Compton spread his happy favours everywhere. The crowd sat in the sun, liberated from anxiety and privation. The strain of long years of affliction fell from all shoulders as Compton set the ball rolling or speeding or rippling right and left, as he leaned to it and swept it from the off round the leg boundary, as he danced forward or danced backwards, his hair tousled beyond the pacifying power of any cream or unguent whatsoever...yes, the crowd sunned themselves as much in Compton's batting as in the beneficial rays coming from the blue sky. Men and women, boys and girls, cheered him to his century, and ran every one of his runs with him.

As I say, his batting was founded on sound first principles--nose on the ball, the body near to the line. But he was perpetually rendering acquired science and logic more and more flexible. He was a born improviser. Once a beautiful spinner from Douglas Wright baffled him all the way. He anticipated a leg-break, but it was a googly when it pitched. To adjust his future physical system at the prompting of instinct working swift as lightning, Compton had to perform a contortion of muscles which sent him sprawling chest-flat on the wicket. But he was in time to sweep the ball to the long-leg boundary.

It is not enough to remember his brilliance only, his winged victories, his moments of animation and fluent effortless control. He has, in the face of dire need, played defensively with as tenaciously and as severely a principled skill as Hutton commanded at his dourest. Compton's 184 for England at Trent Bridge in 1948 must go down in history among the most heroically Spartan innings ever played... England batted a second time 344 behind, and lost Washbrook and Edrich for 39. Compton and Hutton then staved away disaster until 150 was reached, and Hutton was bowled.

In a dreadful light Compton defended with terrific self-restraint against Miller at his fiercest. It is possible the match might have been snatched by him from the burning. Alas, at the crisis, a vicious bumper from Miller rose shoulder high. Compton instinctively hooked, thought better of it too late, slipped on the greasy turf, and fell on his wicket. For six hours and fifty minutes he mingled defence and offence in proportion. He did not, merely because his back was to the wall, spare the occasional loose ball. At Manchester, in the same rubber of 1948, Compton again showed us that there was stern stuff about him, the ironside breastplate as well as the Cavalier plume. He was knocked out by Lindwall. Stitches were sewn into his skull and, after a rest, he came back when England's score was 119 for five. He scored 145 not out in five hours twenty minutes.

These two superbly heroic innings, in the face of odds, may be taken as symbolical of a life and career not all sunshine and light heart, although Compton has lavished plenty of both on us. Nature was generous with him at his cradle; she gave him nearly everything. Then in his prime and heyday she snatched away his mainspring, she crippled him with many summers of his genius still to come.

In his fortieth year he is as young at heart and as richly endowed in batsmanship as at any time of his life. There are ample fruits in his cornucopia yet--if it were not for that knee! Still, we mustn't be greedy. He has shared the fruits of the full and refreshing cornucopia generously with us. He will never be forgotten for his precious gifts of nature and skill, which statistics have no power to indicate let alone voice. Perhaps there is more of him to come. It is hard to believe that nature is any readier than we ordinary mortals are to see him at last reposing with the authentic Old Masters. Whatever his future, our hearts won't let him go. Thank you, Denis!

© John Wisden & Co