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Feature

Ben Compton's Kent breakthrough offers hope to late developers

Released by Notts last year, Compton has made hundreds in each of his first three innings for Kent

David Hopps
David Hopps
20-Apr-2022
Ben Compton made a tidy start on his first Kent appearance, Essex vs Kent, LV= Insurance Championship, Division One, April 8, 2022

Compton has displayed impressive powers of concentration  •  Getty Images

Considering that Ben Compton has already batted for 20 hours and 43 minutes, and faced 918 balls, with the County Championship only two matches old, it would be understandable if casual observers looked at his age of 28 and exclaimed: "Where on earth has he been?"
The answer for Neil Burns, who has coached Compton regularly in cricket and life skills, is simple: he has been on the outside, forever knocking on the door of a county system that is so often closed to the late developer.
Compton's extraordinary start to the season has brought a series of records. He became the first Kent batter ever to score hundreds in his first three innings for the county. And his 856 minutes at the crease against Lancashire at Canterbury was unprecedented in the Championship.
There has even been a suggestion that when he was the last man out, lbw to George Balderson, and so narrowly failed to bat through in both innings, the umpire apologised for getting it wrong, although it looked a close-run thing.
Rejected more times than he cares to remember, Compton has certainly been making up for lost time. Burns, MD of London County Cricket Club, where he offers mentorship in business and sport, feels the county system is at fault.
"I told Ben he had to work very hard because the way the system is designed it is a closed shop," Burns told ESPNcricinfo. "It is designed to recognise top talent at a young age - the next Joe Root, the next Ian Bell. But you don't need to find that player - they are a class apart. The real test of a system is whether it helps a player who is not outstanding at a young age to make the cut.
"What happens is because lots of money and time, not to say careers, is invested in that academy process, it becomes very exclusive. I'm not saying it is consciously exclusive, but late developers find it harder to break in. Players outside the system get disregarded."
His assertion comes fast on the heels of Darren Gough's criticism ahead of Yorkshire's opening Championship match against Gloucestershire at Bristol that county cricket was "too matey" when it came to coaching appointments.
Cricket exists on the principle of incremental change where players are identified early and progress tiny step by tiny step. For Burns, Compton represents "Discontinuous Change" - an abrupt change that disturbs the traditional way of doing things.
He sees that as a very good thing. "Ben has sent a message to those in elite development that they have to perform to justify their gilded life," he said.
Compton was born in Durban, South Africa, but he has a British passport. He is a cousin of Nick, a former England batter, and grandson of Denis, one of the most celebrated and entertaining players in England history. Since netting alongside Nick as a 16-year-old, he became determined to make it as a county cricketer, but despite the famous cricketing name, he was stymied at every turn.
He has had to cope with repeated rejections, initially by MCC Young Cricketers and then by numerous counties despite an enormous weight of runs in club cricket - notably for Richmond and Wimbledon in the Middlesex League - and second XI county cricket. He took part-time jobs to fund cricketing trips to Australia, among others, and took an Open University degree in Politics and History.
Kent were one of several counties who had rejected him, even though he made four hundreds for their second team in 2019. He went from there to Nottinghamshire, who had a long history of opening-batter frailty, but they signed Haseeb Hameed and felt that a Compton-Hameed blend at the top of the order was too pedestrian, preferring Ben Slater as his opening partner.
When Compton did get opportunities, there was constant pressure to perform. "The thing I struggled with was it felt like I was batting for my life," he said. Nottinghamshire released him at the end of last season, after he had made just 98 runs in eight first-class innings for them.
When Kent signed him on a two-year deal in October the response was muted, but the coach Matt Walker felt a patient left-hander would dovetail well with a line-up of right-handed dashers and that Compton deserved another opportunity. "I so feel for him," he said. "He was desperately trying to find somewhere that would have him and give him a chance and he's earned that chance."
Of his herculean effort against Lancashire, Walker said: "I've never seen anything like it. It's remarkable… a mind-blowing game for him at the crease. The amount of balls he faced, just the powers of concentration, patience, understanding the situation, the smartness around his batting. It was just a really, really incredible achievement. To scrap so hard when really, the game's gone…"
Compton feels his progress was helped by a winter in Zimbabwe where he played for the Mountaineers franchise, an opportunity set up by the former Zimbabwe captain Dave Houghton. His 10 innings against the red ball brought two hundreds and 479 runs, inflating his first-class average, while he made two more tons in 50-over cricket for good measure.
Counties have shunned him because of his perceived lack of a white-ball game, but Burns warns against typecasting him as a bit of a blocker. "If you are a trialist you are not going to go out there and tee-off," he said. "When you live on bread and water you are going to play within yourself. It is important to understand that context. Kent have a lot of shotmakers and he can let people play around him but he has more to his game. It is easy to be typecast.
"People's lives in sport can change very fast. He has reaped the benefits of the work he has done for a very long time. His belief will have deepened. He is more than someone with a good, solid defence and a strong mind.
"He has done it the hard way as a self-funding, resourceful young adult. This is no silver spoon story. His story offers hope and inspiration to every young cricketer not afforded an opportunity on the way up through the county 'player pathway' system."
Compton puts it more ruefully. "It's certainly something I've worked extremely hard for, for a long time. It hasn't come overnight and the work I've put into my game hasn't come overnight but I can understand how it might come across."

David Hopps writes on county cricket for ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps