Denis Charles Scott Compton
Denis Charles Scott Compton CBE (1918 – 1997) was an English cricketer who played in 78 Test matches and spent his entire cricket career with Middlesex. He was often called ‘the greatest batsman of his generation’. A right-handed batsman and left-arm unorthodox spin bowler Compton is regularly credited as one of England’s most remarkable batsmen. Sir Don Bradman called him ‘one of the greatest cricket players’ he’d ever seen.
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.
Tagged ‘The Brylcreem Boy,’ Compton was Wisden cricketer of the year in 1939, aged just 21, before war broke out, denying him what surely would have been six of the best seasons of his career.
Denis Compton earned his first England cap against New Zealand in 1937. He remains the third-youngest England debutant at 19 years and 83 days. He scored his first Test century aged just 20 years and 19 days in 1938 against Donald Bradman’s touring Australians, breaking the record set by J. W. Hearne in 1911 for the youngest Test century by an England batsman and remains the record to this day. Later in the same series, he scored a match-saving 76 not out at Lord’s, an innings 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 World War II, during which he served in the Army in India. He was posted at Mhow, Central India. It was in India that he began his close friendship with his Australian counterpart, 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.
Denis was also an accomplished footballer who played most of his football career at Arsenal and exploited his fame by making adverts for Brylcreem. Whilst playing as a winger, he made his debut for Arsenal in 1936, taking the number 11 jersey at the club. Arsenal won the league championship (old First Division) in 1937–38. Denis was eventually successful with Arsenal, winning the League title in 1948 and the FA Cup in 1950.
In a 1990 interview by Ralph Dellor, Denis Compton, talked about playing school cricket and being spotted in a match for Elementary Schools vs Public Schools by the Grand Old Man of English Cricket, Pelham (Plum) Warner. Denis had supporters early on (his father and schoolmasters), and he always wanted to play cricket for Middlesex, although when growing up, he supported Surrey because Jack Hobbs was his hero and he was a great fan of Wally Hammond and Les Ames. His debut was against Sussex and he batted at number 11. He remembered (which was extraordinary as he reputedly had an awful memory) getting booed at Hove for being late and then bowling out George Cox, Hubert Doggart and David Sheppard.
- Cardus wrote: “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 sight and then as it falls 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 absent-mindedness was legendary. Colin Cowdrey wrote that Denis Compton turned up for the Old Trafford Test of 1955 against South Africa without his kitbag. Undaunted, he strolled 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.’ In typical form, at his brother Leslie’s benefit match in 1955, he managed to run him out before he had faced a single ball.
You can view a 1954 BFI film about this sporting great here.
Leslie Harry Compton
Denis’ older brother Leslie Harry Compton (1912 – 1984) also played football for Arsenal (as a defender) and cricket for Middlesex, for whom he played as wicket-keeper from 1938 to 1956. He appeared 272 times, scoring 5,814 runs (an average of 16.75), taking 468 catches and achieving 131 stumpings. Together with his brother, he won the 1947 County Championship title with Middlesex.
His football career eventually took off despite being down the pecking order throughout the 1930s and missing out on the success that Arsenal enjoyed at that time. He stuck with Arsenal and won a Charity Shield winners’ medal in 1938–39, playing 19 times that season.
He served in the Army during World War II while continuing to play football for Arsenal. Leslie scored ten goals as a makeshift centre-forward in a wartime match against Leyton Orient, which finished 15–2 to Arsenal. After the war ended, Leslie reverted to defence, becoming a mainstay in the Arsenal side at centre half. His form was such that he was selected for England for their match against Wales on 15th November 1950, making him, at 38 years and 64 days, the oldest post-war England debutant and the oldest-ever outfield player to debut for his country.
Sport, Football/Cricket, London, England, 19th September 1947, Leslie Compton playing darts for a charity at a London Hotel
Unknown Author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. File URL: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/87/Leslie_Compton_1947-09-19.jpg
In 1956, Leslie became landlord of The Shady Old Lady pub in Finsbury Park and famously had a photo for the press in which he served a pint of beer to the then Arsenal manager Tom Whittaker. In 1962, Leslie moved on to become landlord of The Prince of Wales pub in Highgate.
Both brothers were outstanding sportsmen – Leslie was more successful in football and Denis in cricket. Unlike Denis though, Leslie never played Test cricket for England. Denis and Leslie are the only brothers ever to have won the national title both in football and cricket.
Leslie Compton was born in Woodford, Essex and played football for Middlesex Schools before joining Arsenal as an amateur in 1930. He would spend his entire senior club career at Arsenal (over a period of 22 years) making him one of the club’s longest-ever serving players. He made his debut on 24th April 1932 against Aston Villa in a 1–1 draw at Villa Park, two months after he had turned professional.
Positionally, he started out as a right-back and deputised for Tom Parker in the early 1930s, before George Male was converted to that position and became Parker’s long-term replacement. Compton was relegated to reserve team football and only played 13 first-team games in four seasons. By 1935/36, he had started to feature more regularly, playing 12 games that season and 15 the next, but missed out on a First Division winners’ medal in 1937–38 as he only managed nine appearances that season. Despite being down the pecking order throughout the 1930s and missing out on Arsenal’s success, Compton stuck with Arsenal and won a Charity Shield winners’ medal in 1938–39, playing 19 times that season. World War II intervened; Compton served in the Army while continuing to play football for Arsenal. Converted to an emergency centre-forward, he once scored ten times in a wartime match against Leyton Orient, which finished 15–2 to Arsenal. He also guested for Chester, scoring a hat-trick against Everton during the 1942–43 season. In June 1940, he was one of five Arsenal players who guested for Southampton in a victory over Fulham at Craven Cottage. After the war had ended, he reverted to defence, becoming a mainstay in the Arsenal side at centre half. Although he missed the first six games of 1947–48 due to cricketing commitments, he was a near ever-present for the remainder of the season, as Arsenal won the First Division title and Compton finally earned a top-class honour. His brother, Denis, had also by then established himself in the Arsenal side and won a medal as well.
Compton’s form was such that he was selected for England for their match against Wales on 15th November 1950, making him, at 38 years and 64 days, the oldest post-war England debutant and the oldest-ever outfield player to debut. He was a regular in the Arsenal side until the start of the 1951–52 season, during which he only played four matches. He decided to retire from playing football in the 1952 close season; in total he played 273 matches and scored six goals. He stayed at Arsenal for another three years as a coach and scout.
Sources and Further Reading
Denis Compton at the Ashes Test Series on 29th October 1954
Attribution: Harry Martin (Sydney Morning Herald), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
File URL: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e7/Denis_Compton_1954.jpg
- Source: Youngest Players on debut for England in Test matches”. Cricket Archive. ↑
- Sources: “Denis Compton”. Spartacus Educational.com, and Heald, Tim (4 May 2015). Denis Compton: The Authorized Biography. Dean Street Press. ↑
- Source: Keating, Frank (1998). “Denis Compton – talisman of hope, 1998… Delightful man“. ESPNcricinfo. ↑
- Ibid ↑