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A very different breed of champion Compton

Thursday, 15 November 2012 - 9:05am IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph
The grandfather was the Brylcreem Boy blessed with natural genius but hard graft has taken England's new opener Richard Compton to the top, his father tells Ian Chadband.

Richard Compton says he can still picture it as if it were yesterday. His boy Nicholas is playing football in an under-11s match in South Africa while his dad Denis watches engrossed from a rickety stand, pride etched in his handsome old face to see these echoes of his own wing wizardry in his little grandson's feet.

"When Nick got his hat-trick, my father, even on that gammy knee he'd suffered for years, leapt in the air and shouted 'that's my boy!'," laughs Richard. "He could have been on the terraces at Arsenal!"

The memory serves to remind Richard just how much the late, great Denis would have adored today, seeing that boy emulate him by playing cricket for England, with Nick looking set to make his debut as the first Test got under way against India.

It is an emotional occasion for Richard, the son of a national hero and now father to a very different kind of champion Compton. He says Nick has earned his utter admiration for persevering through various hardships to earn that England cap.

Richard wanted to be in Ahmedabad with wife Glynis to cheer on Nick. "I was going but, I'll be frank, I don't think he needs me there, he doesn't need any more pressure with his dad being in the stands." Instead, snatching a break from his job as a communications consultant, he will be glued to the TV back at his Durban home.

The entire Compton clan will be hooked with Denis's elder son Patrick, a former Natal player currently covering the South Africa series as a journalist, crossing his fingers out in Australia.

Back in Durban, Nick's sister Alex, who was left paraplegic after a car crash five years ago, will be watching from her wheelchair and "rooting for Nick big-time" this week.

Then there's Patrick's 18-year-old son Ben, who scores runs for fun in South African schools cricket, sounds as obsessive about the game as his cousin and can dream about being the next grand cricketing Compton. "He'd love to follow in Nick's footsteps," says Patrick.

Richard aches for Nick to succeed, knowing how hard he has worked for this. Denis may have been the cavalier who, legend dictates, could roll up at Lord's in his dicky bow after an all-nighter and still reel off a glittering ton. Yet for Nick, as for practically any mere mortal not possessed of the Brylcreem Boy's genius, hard slog has to be the keyword.

Richard laughs at how he had to build a net in the family back garden in Durban to satisfy Nick's almost religious zeal to practice. "Crikey, he was so unbelievably passionate, I'd bowl to him for hours when I was trying to run a business from home! Nick's enthusiasm eventually outweighed the time I could give.

"So we had a Zulu gardener who I had to teach to throw balls down to him. To this day, the guy swears 'never again'. He reckons eventually he couldn't clean his teeth because his shoulder was so sore. I felt so sorry for him, I ended up having to buy a bowling machine so he only had to feed in the balls!"

Nick himself likes to tell the story how Denis, brandy in hand, once watched him going through his forward defensive routine during a back garden knockabout and teased him: "Oh for heaven's sake, just hit the bloody thing!"

Yet though Richard accepts that his son and dad were "so different as personalities and players that in all honesty the resemblance is in name only", he still believes that "sometimes, however much you want to try to shrug it off, a legacy like the one my father left is almost subliminal. It can become like an entrenched curse. I think Nick needs to answer it but if I had to prioritise it, I don't think Denis Compton weighs on his mind as much as his own desperate need to achieve."

Of course, carrying the Compton name had to impact on Patrick and Richard, Denis's two boys from the second of his three marriages, who both played briefly at first-class level in non-racial cricket in Natal's apartheid era. "I suppose the Compton name was a hurdle, but it was one I avoided pretty early on in my life," says Patrick. "Nick has, I believe, cleared it with aplomb."

Both sons believe they never made a career in the game because they never possessed the extraordinary drive to succeed that identifies Nick and Ben. "Desire, hunger, focus, call it what you will, is the key to success, at least as much as talent. I had a bit of the latter, and bugger all of the former!" laughs Patrick.

The sentiment is shared by Richard, who reckons his own personality is more Denis than Nick. "Nick doesn't drink, is immensely disciplined with his diet and very health conscious. but I wouldn't describe myself nor Dad like that!"

Richard never saw his father play because when he was five his parents separated and he returned to South Africa with his mother. Patrick, though, stayed on in England and even had the cherishable memory of playing against Denis.

"It was for Gerrards Cross against a Wilf Isaacs XI. Dad beat me all ends up with a perfectly pitched and paced chinaman, with Godfrey Evans keeping wicket!" he recalls. "The look and exclamations they exchanged as Godfrey whipped off the bails has always remained with me."

Richard feels he only truly got to know his father with the chance to spend a lot of time with him in the last three years of his life. Like everyone, he fell for the joyous tales of the wonderful raconteur and watching awed as the world seemed to want to shake Denis's hand, it dawned on him what this extraordinary man meant to his country. "He was a real hero wasn't he?" recalls Richard of the man whose matinee idol looks and comic book marvels in an Arsenal shirt and Middlesex sweater brought such dazzle to England's austere post-war world.

Only when Nick was 15 did he really appreciate just how much Denis had influenced another generation too.

"There was a seminal moment," recalls Richard. "Even though he was playing first-team cricket at school, batting with Hashim Amla, he seemed to have lost direction and was listless. So I asked him 'Nick, what do you want to do?' And he responded 'I want to emulate my grandfather'. It was the moment which, to me, connected my father and my son. From then, it felt clear he was going to be a professional cricketer. At the time, all sports teams here were being selected on a racially demographic basis. I said to him 'if you're going to do it, go to England and play. Go home to where your grandfather did it'."

The chance for Nick to study at Harrow School, organised by the former football referee David Elleray after a visit to Durban, was unmissable. "For Nick, it was a case of gaining his manhood, his independence, but it was tough. He wasn't a great border and it took him a long time to adjust," says Richard.

But like his grandad, who, it is sometimes forgotten, could also fight on a sticky wicket as well as he could swashbuckle on a belter, Nick battled over every hurdle to make the grade with Middlesex and Somerset, including the defeat of a chronic groin injury which Richard feared would end his career.

Then there was Alex's accident. "It's been horrendously tough for us as a family and a psychological strain for Nick. Maybe it has been partly responsible for the maturity and seriousness he possesses," says Richard. "Now, Nick's story to me feels like that of a business. A tough start-up, the business knows hard times as it tries to grow but eventually, after 29 years, it goes global. So today I celebrate quietly. I'm utterly, unbelievably thrilled but frightened to go out there and raise my hands to the heavens because I want him so much to cement his place in that Test side."

And if Nicholas Richard Denis Compton eventually does go global, Richard promises that a proud father will copy his own dad's leap to the skies with the cry: "That's my boy!"

 


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