Denis Charles Scott Compton CBE (23 May 1918 – 23 April 1997) was an English cricketer who played in 78 Test matches and spent his whole cricket career with Middlesex. He was also an accomplished footballer who played most of his football career at Arsenal.
A right-handed batsman and slow left-arm chinaman bowler, Compton is regularly credited as one of England’s most remarkable batsmen. He is one of only twenty-five players to have scored over one hundred centuries in first-class cricket. In 2009, Compton was posthumously inducted into the ICC Cricket Hall of Fame. The Denis Compton Oval and a stand at Lord’s Cricket Ground are both named in his honour.
Compton was born and brought up in what was then the urban district of Hendon, which later became part of Greater London. He was the second son and youngest child of Henry Ernest Compton and Jessie Anne Duthie; he had one older brother, Leslie Harry (born 1912) and one older sister, Hilda (born 1913). He was educated at Bell Lane Primary School and joined the MCC ground staff at Lord’s Cricket Ground at the age of 15. The previous summer he had begun to make a name for himself when, at that same venue, he scored 114 as captain of an Elementary Schools XI, impressing Test selector Sir Pelham Warner. By the late 1930s, Compton was one of England’s finest batsmen, and remained at the top of his profession for some twenty years. His dashing approach to batting and the sheer enjoyment he exuded endeared him to a generation of cricket lovers. As an all-rounder Compton was a right-hand bat and a slow left-arm Chinaman bowler.
Compton earned his first England cap against New Zealand in 1937. At 19 years and 83 days, he remains the third youngest England debutant ever. He scored his first Test century aged just 20 years and 19 days in 1938 against Don Bradman‘s touring Australians. Later in the same series he scored a match-saving 76 not out at Lord’s; this innings was scored on a rain-affected pitch and greatly impressed Don Bradman. In 1939 he scored 2468 runs for the season, including 120 against the West Indies at Lord’s.
As with many other sportsmen of his generation he lost some of his best years to the Second World War, during which he served in the army in India. He was posted at Mhow, Central India. He was granted permission to play for the Holkar team in the Ranji Trophy, India’s national cricket tournament. It was in India that he began his close friendship with his Australian counterpart as Test cricketer, footballer and national hero, Keith Miller. They played against each other in the match at Calcutta between the Australian Services team and East Zone. The match was interrupted by rioting when Compton was on 94 and one of the rioters who had invaded the pitch ran up to Compton and said “Mr Compton, you very good player, but the match must stop now”. This was a phrase which Miller gleefully recalled whenever Compton went out to bat against the Australians. In recognition of their friendship and rivalry, the ECB and Cricket Australia decided in 2005 that the player adjudged the Player of the Series in the Ashes would be awarded the Compton-Miller medal.
England toured Australia in the 1946-47 Ashes series and though they were beaten by the powerful Australian team, Compton distinguished himself by scoring a century in each innings of the Adelaide Test.
Back in England, Compton produced a season of cricket that established him as a British household name, and one of the greatest cricketers of his era. Helped by a rare summer of sunshine, Compton thrilled the war-weary English public with his cavalier batting. Against the touring South Africans, Compton scored five centuries, one for Middlesex and four for England, accumulating 1,056 runs at an average of 88. His aggregate in all matches that season was 3816 runs, which remains the most ever made in a season in first-class matches. In that season, he scored 18 centuries, with the last one scored on 15 September 1947. Eighteen hundreds in a single season is another world record to his name.
According to former journalist Frank Keating, Compton’s personal favourite innings of that summer was for Middlesex against Kent at Lord’s. Chasing 397 to win, and needing to score at nearly 100 runs per hour, Compton led the way with a dashing 168, but Middlesex fell short by 75 runs.
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.
Arlott, who had written his first cricket book that summer, concluded with a tribute to Compton:
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.
Against Bradman’s Invincibles in 1948, Compton was England’s standout performer in a losing cause. In the First Test at Trent Bridge he scored 184 in the second innings after Australia had established a first innings lead of 344, and it looked as though he might save the match for England until he lost his balance to a short-pitched ball from Miller and hit his wicket. In the Third Test at Old Trafford, Compton scored an unbeaten 145 in the first innings, when no other batsman made more than 37. He had scored only four runs when, while facing a bumper barrage from Ray Lindwall, he edged the ball onto his forehead. Compton was forced off the ground with a cut head, given two stitches, and ordered to rest despite wanting to return to the crease. He eventually came back out when England was teetering at 119 for 5 and enabled the team to reach 363. This was the only match that England did not lose, and if so much time had not been lost to the weather they might have won it. In the series he made 562 runs at 62.44, against fierce fast bowling from Lindwall, Miller and Bill Johnston.
On the MCC tour of South Africa 1948-49 he scored 300 against North-Eastern Transvaal in just a minute over three hours – still the fastest triple-century ever in first-class cricket. His first hundred took 66 minutes (he said, “I was getting a sight of the bowling”), his second 78 minutes (he was not out overnight and had to play himself in again next morning), and his third hundred took just 37 minutes. Reminiscing about the match later, Compton compared the South Africans’ bowling with a decent county side, but criticised their catching (he had been dropped before he reached 20).
He toured Australia for 1950-51 Ashes series as vice-captain, the first professional in the 20th century to be awarded the position, but had a dismal tour because of a recurring knee problem caused by an old football injury. He averaged only 7.57 in the Tests, but 92.11 in his other first-class matches. He became the first professional to captain the MCC for an entire game, Jack Hobbs having taken over from the injured Arthur Carr in 1924-25. He and Len Hutton made the winning runs in the Fifth Test at Melbourne, the first time Australia had been beaten since 1938. Compton as well jointly captained Middlesex between 1951 and 1952, with W.J. Edrich. Also in 1952, Compton scored his 100th first class century against Northampton while featuring for Middlesex at.Lords. On the 1954-55 tour his departure was delayed for a remedial operation on his knee and he joined the team in Australia by aeroplane. In the First Test at Brisbane he badly cut his hand when he hit a billboard while fielding and batted at the bottom of the order. He missed the Second Test. He came third in the England Test averages (38.20), but topped the tour averages (57.07) and made three centuries. In his last Test against Australia in 1956 he made a dazzling 94 despite having just had his right kneecap removed.
In home test series against Pakistan he set the record for scoring the most number of runs in between lunch and tea in a Test match (173).
Compton finished his cricket career after playing 78 Test matches with 17 centuries at an average of 50.06. In all first-class cricket he scored 123 centuries.
|* Senior club appearances and goals counted for the domestic league only.|
Compton also played football, beginning his career at non-league Nunhead during the 1934-35 season before joining Arsenal. Whilst playing as a winger, he made his debut in 1936, taking up the number 11 jersey at the club. Compton was eventually successful at Highbury, winning the League title in 1948 and the FA Cup in 1950. With Arsenal Compton also won the old First Division in 1937-38, making seven league appearances in all that season. However, the latter part of his sporting career was dogged by knee trouble when his right knee was damaged in a collision with the goalkeeper of club Charlton Athletic. He was thus limited to 60 official i.e. non-wartime appearances, scoring 16 goals altogether. He represented England in wartime games on 12 occasions, but never in a full official match.
Personality and legacy
Compton’s absent-mindedness was legendary. Colin Cowdrey writes that Compton turned up for the Old Trafford Test of 1955 against South Africa without his kitbag. Undaunted, he sauntered into the museum and, borrowing an antique bat off the display, went on to score 158 and 71. Nevertheless, England lost by three wickets. This absent-mindedness was particularly obvious in his tendency to run out his partners at the crease: Trevor Bailey declared that ‘a call for a run from Compton should be treated as no more than a basis for negotiation.’ Typically, at his brother Leslie’s benefit match in 1955, he managed to run him out before he had faced a single ball.
Peter Parfitt, the Middlesex and England batsman, was a speaker at a major celebration in London for Compton’s 70th birthday. He claims that the chief guest was called to the telephone by a lady who had heard about the dinner: eventually, he agreed to take the call. “Denis,” she said, “it’s me, your mother. You’re not 70, you’re only 69.”
After retiring from sport, Denis Compton became a journalist and later a commentator for BBC Television. He was made a CBE in 1958. He became the first former professional cricketer to be elected President of Middlesex County Cricket Club in 1991. He served two terms, until a week before his death from septicaemia in Windsor, Berkshire aged 78.
Compton’s death, on Saint George’s Day, coincided with the opening of the 1997 County Championship season, and pavilion flags across the country were lowered to half-mast in his memory. The MCC named the twin stands at the Nursery End at Lord’s Cricket Ground, in his and Bill Edrich‘s honour. Cricket writer Colin Bateman noted however that it was “a dull, practical structure which does little justice to their mercurial talents and indomitable spirits”.
He was also honoured at the Shenley Cricket Centre, where the main pitch is named the Denis Compton Oval. This is where his grandson, Nick Compton, set the Middlesex record for the 6th wicket partnership in List A cricket (142* BL Hutton & NRD Compton v Lancashire at Shenley 2002).
With his contemporary the footballer Stanley Matthews Compton was the first British sportsman to make a substantial living by exploiting his sporting reputation to provide advertisements and endorsements. For many years he was the public face of the Brylcreem range of men’s haircare products. An example of this is illustrated upon page VIII of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack edition of 1955. Denis Compton developed a close working relationship with Royds Advertising, and its Chairman, who at that time was Nicholas Royds.
Compton’s elder brother Leslie also played cricket for England as well as Middlesex and football as a defender for Arsenal and England.
Compton was married three times; his first wife was Doris Rich, a dancer, and they had a son, Brian. With his second wife, Valerie Platt, Compton had two sons, Patrick and Richard, both of whom would go on to play cricket for Natal. Compton married his third wife, Christine Franklin Tobias, in 1975, with whom he had two daughters, Charlotte and Victoria. His grandson Nick, son of Richard, made his Test debut against India at Ahmedabad during the England cricket team’s 2012-13 tour of India.
The following table summarises the Test centuries scored by Denis Compton.
- In the column Runs, * indicates being not out.
- The column title Match refers to the Match Number of his career.
|Denis Compton’s Test Centuries|
|102||2||Australia||Nottingham, England||Trent Bridge||1938||Drawn|
|120||6||West Indies||London, England||Lord’s||1939||Won|
|147||15||Australia||Adelaide, Australia||Adelaide Oval||1947||Drawn|
|163||18||South Africa||Nottingham, England||Trent Bridge||1947||Drawn|
|208||19||South Africa||London, England||Lord’s||1947||Won|
|115||20||South Africa||Manchester, England||Old Trafford||1947||Won|
|113||22||South Africa||London, England||Kennington Oval||1947||Drawn|
|184||23||Australia||Nottingham, England||Trent Bridge||1948||Lost|
|145*||25||Australia||Manchester, England||Old Trafford||1948||Drawn|
|114||29||South Africa||Johannesburg, South Africa||Ellis Park||1948||Drawn|
|114||33||New Zealand||Leeds, England||Headingley||1949||Drawn|
|116||34||New Zealand||London, England||Lord’s||1949||Drawn|
|112||44||South Africa||Nottingham, England||Trent Bridge||1951||Lost|
|133||58||West Indies||Port of Spain, Trinidad||Queen’s Park Oval||1954||Drawn|
|278||61||Pakistan||Nottingham, England||Trent Bridge||1954||Won|
|158||70||South Africa||Manchester, England||Old Trafford||1955||Lost|
Denis Compton is mentioned in Fawlty Towers, series 1 episode 2 “The Builders”. Upon arriving back at the hotel Basil notices that his cut price builders have made a mess of some renovations. Basil and Polly discuss whose fault this is with Basil blaming Polly “you were left in charge” and Manuel “he was supposed to wake you” before Basil sarcastically asks Polly “well whose fault is it then you cloth eared bint? Denis Compton’s?”
Compton is referred to in the second episode of series 2 of Ever Decreasing Circles, “The Cricket Match”, when Martin explains to his neighbour Paul that Compton never undermined his county captain George Mann, despite being the better player.
In As Time Goes By, series 3 episode 3 “Living Together, But Where?”. When Lionel is cleaning his flat, he wonders if should keep his copy of the book “End of an Innings”, written by Denis Compton.