Denis Compton - talisman of hope, 1998

...Delightful man

Frank Keating

The timing, impeccable to the last, was poignant. The news came on the morning the cricketers of England were preparing to call "Play!" on the first day of 1997's County Championship. Then, one by one, the pavilion flags were lowered to half-mast and young men in cream flannels, who knew him not, stood to attention for a minute because they knew who he was all right, and what he had contributed everlastingly to the innate goodness as well as the grandeur of their game.

Compton was an all-time great and, as those standards dipped at Canterbury, Chelmsford, Old Trafford, Trent Bridge and Hove - which in his bonny prime he had sunnily beguiled - bells metaphorically tolled the world over at places happy to accept that team-game players can lift spirits by their skill and chivalry.

Because of the drab days he so illuminated, Denis was almost a cultural icon to Britain of the immediate post-war, a valorous talisman of gaiety and of hope. As Chesterton had it: "There is a great man who makes every man feel small. But the really great man is the one that makes every man feel great."

I was always awestruck in the presence of this cigarette-card monarch of my infancy. We last spoke when Alec Bedser won his New Year knighthood. "No doubt about it," said Denis, "Alec was the best medium-pacer I ever saw, and the greatest trier of the lot." And then he added "Lovely chap, too." There were very few men Denis remembered of whom he would not add: "Lovely chap, too."

We spoke as well that day of the death a few months before of Jack Robertson, the opening batsman who had laid down the markers for the entrance of Compton and Edrich and their string of voluptuous partnerships for Middlesex ("Dear Jack ... lovely chap with it") and Denis at once became croaky and saddened with age. There are very few of my vintage left any more. The awfulness of age is that every day you wake up and quite expect to hear another lifelong chum has gone...

Fifty years before he died, to the week, at his beloved Lord's, he set forth on his summer of summers. England was still war-cowering and uncertain: scant, skint lives being put back together in monochrome. In glorious Technicolor, Compton's genius - the whistling happy-go-lucky errand-boy, his feet on the handlebars - lightened the load, and Neville Cardus acclaimed: "Never have I been so deeply touched on a cricket ground as in this heavenly summer, when I went to Lord's to see a pale-faced crowd, existing on rations, the rocket-bomb still in the ears of most, and see the strain of anxiety and affliction passed from all hearts and shoulders at the sight of Compton in full sail ... each stroke a flick of delight, a propulsion of happy, sane, healthy life. There were no rations in an innings by Compton."

John Arlott wrote his first cricket book in that summer of 1947. It ended: "To close the eyes is to see again that easy, happy figure at the wicket, pushing an unruly forelock out of the eye and then as it falls down again, playing off the wrong foot a stroke which passes deep-point like a bullet ... never again will the boyish delight in hitting a ball with a piece of wood flower directly into charm and gaiety and all the wealth of achievement."

Compton's own favourite innings that year - probably the most memorable of all, I think - was for Middlesex against Kent at Lord's, a run chase, 390-odd at over 100 an hour; we just failed, but it was such glorious fun going for them. Typical Compo. His 300 in three hours in Benoni, South Africa, was always passed off with a chuckle and "Ooh, great fun." Of his 17 Test match centuries he would not disagree when you said that context was all, and the best was 145 at Old Trafford in 1948, at the beginning of which a bumper from Ray Lindwall had cut his eyebrow like a boxer's.

Movietone News the next week gave over its whole bulletin to that innings and Leslie Mitchell's evocative dulcets ended the commentary: Shaky and ill as he must have been, Compton plays like an utter master. Great as Compton is, never has he been greater. Denis would tell how, groggy, he only continued that epic innings after a few slugs of doctor's-orders brandy.

It was apt, too, that he died on St George's Day because, Chesterton again:

St George he was for England

And before he slayed the dragon

He drank a pint of English ale

Out of an English flagon.

Lovely chap, too.

Frank Keating is sports columnist on The Guardian, where this article first appeared. Compton is featured in his new book, Frank Keating's Sporting Century.

© John Wisden & Co