Familial sporting dynasties are a rare thing, but the summer of 2018 sees a celebration of one such legacy, as cricketer Nick Compton commemorates his testimonial year in conjunction with marking what would have been his Grandfather – the iconic Denis Compton’s – 100th birthday. To follow in the footsteps of a sporting legend is no easy feat, but one which Nick through hard graft and an ambitious and competitive spirit managed to accomplish.
Denis Compton was a gentleman and a true sporting hero to post-war Brits, in terms of modern-day sporting achievement he was a truly remarkable career. As a batsman for England, Compo scored nearly 6,000 runs in over 70 tests with an average of 50.00.
Sheer perfection in cricketing terms, however when you throw in an offseason footballing career with Arsenal that garnered League and FA Cup titles, you get a true measure of the man.
And the talent ran in the family, many may be unaware that Denis’ brother Leslie also forged a successful sporting career, himself representing Middlesex at cricket while playing for Arsenal and later earning a couple of coveted caps for England.
Denis was born just a few miles from Lord’s on May 23, 1918. Aged just 14, Denis appeared for a combined Elementary Schools side against a team sponsored by former first-class cricketer Carleton Fowell Tufnell at Lord’s. Denis opened the batting making 114 of the teams 208 runs and took two wickets. Early signs a cricketing star was born.
At 15 he scored a century for the MCC against Suffolk, then two years later shared in a century partnership with Swanton for Middlesex 2nd XI against Kent Second XI at Folkestone. Later that week, just after turning 18 he was promoted to the first team to play Sussex at Lords.
It would be a short three weeks before he scored his maiden first-class century, at Northampton. By the end of 1936, he had passed the 1,000 mark, won his county cap, and was on the cusp of the England team.
He was an outstanding right-handed batsman, who could also bowl a mean left-armed chinaman. Know as a fearless competitor he never wore a helmet while batting and had a devil may care attitude at the wicket, being somewhat less cautious than his fellow players, and playing against the English stereotype of defence as opposed to flair.
He showcased this flair while on international duty, two of his most celebrated innings were those against the dominant force of Bradman’s Australians in 1948, when he made 184 at Trent Bridge.
And even more famously his 145 not out at Old Trafford where during his innings he top-edged the ball into his own face having to go off for stitches but, and as legend has it, he imbibed a couple of swigs of his favoured brandy and was back out at the crease, to put the Aussies to the sword.
A national pin-up for a war-weary nation Denis Compton was a swashbuckling sportsman who lit up cricket pitches around the world with a style of play not to be forgotten.
For young Nick Compton growing up in South Africa, hearing tales of sporting prowess that captured the nation’s hearts, making a success of his undoubted cricketing ability on these shores would be no easy feat.
However, after a difficult start with Middlesex, a move to Somerset rejuvenated his talent and as the runs flowed so did international recognition following the retirement of Andrew Strauss.
In his first-class career, Nick has scored well over 10,000 runs with an average in the forties to match. He also made a successful return to Middlesex, ensuring the revered Compton legacy lives on.
With a summer of celebration in the offing, we caught up with Nick to get the inside track of what it’s like following in the footsteps of a sporting icon and to find out what events he has planned for this special year.
The MALESTROM: What’s your enduring memory of your Grandad?
Nick Compton: I do remember when I was nine years old playing representative football in South Africa, and he watched me score a hat-trick and I can remember where he was sitting, how he was sitting and those are the kind of vivid memories you have when you’re young, you don’t remember much do you? But there’s always one or two things.
The other was him watching me get a 40 not out against Caldicott prep school when I came over on my first England tour with my prep school from South Africa and I remember him telling my Dad then, that I had a lot of guts and courage and that would hold me in good stead going forward.
I also remember being in the backyard of his house near Caldicott school, because I stayed with him for a week and I was hitting a couple of underarms thinking I was impressing him with my straight bat and high elbow and he was sitting on the porch with his tot of brandy and he shouted out,
“for heaven’s sake, just hit the bloody thing.”
And funnily enough it is something that stayed with me for a long time, you know as an opening batsman the game can get all consuming and I’m quite technical and I never quite lost my penchant for playing a forward defence, I think it was something I tried to remember when I overanalysed which was something I had a tendency to do.
TM: Did he give you much other advice?
NC: Well I was only thirteen when he died. He was big on enjoying it, he told my Dad when we were at his house,
“just tell the boy to enjoy it”
He wasn’t particularly technical, although I was young, he was all about enjoying it.
TM: Do you know if he had to work as hard as others? Or was it just that god given talent that you see so rarely?
NC: Yeah, well you know talent’s an interesting thing, people from the outside will see him as being pretty gifted and he was, no doubt. But he was brought up in a household where his brother was a pretty good sportsman too, he played for Arsenal, played for Middlesex as well and his sister was an outstanding hockey player and tennis player, so it was quite the sporting family.
Growing up there was a lot of sport played on the streets, hours and hours of playing, so to say it was just God-given, no I wouldn’t agree with that, I think a huge amount of work went into it, although he did have a natural style that was fairly unique. I think in my opinion in those days talent seemed to win the day if that makes sense.
Whereas now I think so much work goes in, that talent doesn’t shine above the rest unless of course you’re AB de Villiers, but even then a lot of guys are training hard, working in the gym, improving. I think back then you were just good or not good.
TM: It’s incredible that he played football and cricket at the highest level? That could never happen these days…
NC: Absolutely, I think it would be impossible for it to happen these days, given the contracts and the time and effort it requires. But I think it’s a shame because I look at the winters we have as cricketers, we’ve got five months off and I think one of the mistakes that I kind of regret was that I was actually quite a talented all-round sportsman.
I missed those other sports, I missed playing football, I missed playing touch rugby, I missed all those things I did growing up, which I loved, and actually, it probably would have made my cricket a lot less serious. In terms of once you go all out to one thing I think it can be tough to maintain that enjoyment at times.
I think the one thing that was very evident with my Grandfather was the flair and enjoyment and the happiness and excitement and entertainment he gave to millions of people.
I’m sure the fact that it was post-war and people were looking for a hero and he was the perfect example of taking people out of that depression, I think the one thing you do get whether it be football or cricket, he loved sport and he expressed it, I think sport is so much an expression of your personality and I think he was able to do that better than most.
TM: There are so many great stories about Denis, a lot involve having a drink mid game etc. How much of that do you know to be true, or is a lot of it myth and legend?
NC: I actually think a lot of it is true, my Dad reminds me of some of the stories. There’s one time I’m not totally sure whether it was his 40th or 50th birthday.
I have a feeling it was his 50th and he was out at the pub and lots of people had gathered and the phone rang – it wasn’t very difficult to find Denis, he was usually at one of 3 or 4 pubs – and the barman answered the phone and said, “Compo it’s your mother”, and he thought why’s my mother ringing me? He leans over the bar to take the phone and she said:
“Darling, I’ve just checked it’s not your 50th birthday, you’re 49” (laughs).
I ask my Dad how many of these stories are true, but I think from what we understand quite a lot of them are. Maybe a bit of embellishment, but the nuts and bolts of them are true, him arriving late for games, did happen, how often I don’t know, people think he arrived late for every game and then scored a hundred.
I’m not sure it happened quite like that. I think the point for me is more, not so much these idiosyncrasies, but the fact that he could get away with it, I don’t think anyone else would get away with it.
You look at modern times, he wouldn’t have had a prayer, I mean there’d be fines, he’d be dropped for a game. I think he could walk in and charm everyone and be like “sorry chaps, the traffic was terrible”, and people would laugh and think that’s Compo. So many people adored him.
TM: How heavy has the Compton name weighed on you, has it helped or hindered would you say?
NC: I’m not totally sure how to answer that, maybe now coming to the end I’m looking at it slightly differently. From my perspective, I was viciously competitive and ambitious myself growing up in South Africa, as a young little sportsman.
I was a terrier on the football field or rugby pitch, I won the athletics at school, I played representative tennis, I did it all and you know I had a Grandfather who lived in England and was a hero, but at age 8, 9, 10, 11, I guess it’s not really something that’s on your mind.
I spent most of my afternoon’s watching South African test matches on the TV, watching the West Indies, watching Brian Lara, Jacques Kallis, Jonty Rhodes, Andrew Hudson, those were the kind of people that I wanted to emulate.
I do think that perhaps I don’t realise the significance of maybe growing up in a family like mine because I think things are moulded very early in your mind and I maybe underestimated the images that were put onto me very early.
There were pictures in the house of Grandad – his prowess was made known very early – so subliminally the fact that there was a Grandfather who transcended his era of sport.
I think perhaps I underestimate the power those images had on creating that fantasy and that drive and I think being honest it was only in Somerset where I really found my own true identity and started to really believe in myself as a player.
At Middlesex did he weigh on me a lot? Not really, lots of people knew who I was – maybe there was a weight around me at Middlesex that I couldn’t really put into words – I think that’s it. I wanted to achieve things myself, if I didn’t score runs I didn’t think s**t I’m not as good as my Grandfather, I thought I’ve not performed and I want to be successful.
TM: One thing’s for sure with the hundredth year and all the celebrations you’ve got going on, the Compton name will be remembered…
NC: Yeah I’m very proud that I’ve achieved some of the things he did, not all of them, I’m proud that I could hold my nerve and follow through with my ambition, and I’m very proud that I had a famous Grandfather who was such an icon and remembered by so many, not just for his cricket but for his personality, it’s a very special thing for me and my family.
There are are a number of fantastic events taking place for Nick’s testimonial year. This July there’s the ‘Legendary Indian Summer’ where former star players such as Harbhajan Singh and Sourav Ganguly will join Nick for an entertaining Q & A. Later in the year there are chances to dine with more greats of the game and in November Nick showcases his talent for photography at The Maddox Gallery. For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit https://www.thecomptontestimonial.com/
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