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I have had this book for a while, and as I am in a sports book reading spree now, I thought it was time to read it.

Denis Compton was one of the greatest English cricketers. He played between 1937 and 1957. He was one of the two important batsmen in the English test team of his time. (The other was Len Hutton.) Denis Compton also played football professionally. He played for Arsenal in the English league, and he also played for the England team during the war years. He was a rare bird that way, because he played two sports equally well and he also played them both professionally. He was a double international. Such a thing is next to impossible today. This book is his authorized biography.

This book is a traditional sports biography and so it is a treat to cricket and sports fans. It looks at Denis Compton’s cricket and football careers closely, though I would say that the cricket coverage is more. The book talks about his family background, how he was born in a blue collar family (his father was a painter, decorator and a fence-mender and later when things became hard, he became a lorry driver), how he played street cricket with his friends and honed his skills, how his sports masters in school recognized his talent and helped him by nurturing his natural style, his matches for his school, how he ended up playing county cricket for Middlesex and football for Arsenal, his important innings in big matches, how he ended up playing for England, how the war interrupted his career, how he accomplished some of his greatest sporting deeds after the war, his relationship with famous players including teammate Len Hutton, wicketkeeper and best friend Godfrey Evans, his Australian rival and great friend Keith Miller, the great Don Bradman himself, his captains Robins, Gubby Allen, Peter May and others. There is also something about his relationship with John Arlott, which didn’t really go that well. The book also covers something about his personal life, his marriages, his family, but these parts play second fiddle to the cricket. The latter part of the book talks about his post-retirement life, some of the controversies he was involved in, and how he continued to be popular among new generations of fans till his last days.

This is the first time I am reading so much about Denis Compton. From the descriptions in the book and the pictures in it, he seems to have been a person, who looked incredibly handsome like James Bond (as someone said, every boy wanted to be like him and every girl wanted to be with him), and who played like a combination of Sehwag (because of his rapid scoring, amazing hitting and unconventional shots), and Mike Hussey (because he was brilliant at farming the strike with tailenders and having unbelievable partnerships). Who is this guy? Why haven’t I seen him play? Why wasn’t he born in my generation? Or why wasn’t I born in his generation? Looking at his pictures, it is hard to believe that he was from a working class background and he left school when he was 14 years old. He looks like a dashing, debonair aristocrat who went to Oxford or Cambridge. I would have loved to watch him play. It would have been a great experience. In 1947, two years after the war got over, when England was in bad shape, he singlehandedly uplifted the morale of his country with his exquisite batting. That was the year which was his Annus Mirabilis – he made 3816 runs with 18 hundreds, a record which has still not been equalled. But it was not about the numbers but about the way he played, the style, the dash he showed on the cricket field, the joy he brought to spectators. The great Neville Cardus describes that beautiful summer thus :

“Never have I been so deeply touched on a cricket ground as I was 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 years of most folk – see this worn, dowdy crowd watching Compton. The strain of long years of anxiety and affliction passed from all hearts at the sight of Compton in full sail…There were no rations in an innings by Compton.”

I wish I had been around in 1947, as a schoolboy, watching Compton bat at Lord’s. That would have been one of the great experiences in life.

The book describes his legendary partnerships with tailenders – it is a rare skill which only very few batsmen have. Compton seems to have had that talent in ample measure. I can’t remember anyone other than Mike Hussey playing so well with the tail. (Hussey was so great that he once inspired Glenn McGrath to hang around and make a half century. McGrath, though he was one of the greatest bowlers of alltime, was a genuine No.11 and a proper mug with the bat.) Compton seems to have been even better. Another thing that I loved about Compton was the way he did very well when his team faced extreme adversity. Batting brilliantly with the tail was one example of that. During the 1948 Ashes, when the Australian team just walked over England, Compton was the only (or one of the few) English batsmen to have shown resistance and who counterattacked. In one match, during that Ashes series, he got hit by a ball, had to go to the hospital and get stitches, after which he came back and made a big hundred. It was the stuff of legend. I had read about that Ashes series only from an Australian perspective, in Bradman’s autobiography ‘Farewell to Cricket‘. So it was nice to read the English perspective here. I was also very surprised to discover through the book that Compton and a few other batsmen of his time scored runs at an extremely rapid pace, sometimes – like a hundred runs in an hour. It almost looks like a T20 rate of scoring! We tend to believe that cricket at those times was played at a relaxed, languid pace, but the book shows that that is not always the case. Compton’s rivalry with Miller on the cricket field and their great friendship off it, is also so beautifully described in the book. Miller was my boyhood sporting hero, and it is so nice that these two great handsome, dashing stars were great friends too.

One more thing that I have to say about the book is that it is an admirer’s, a fan’s biography. It doesn’t necessarily try to provide a balanced view of things. It mostly describes things from Compton’s perspective. So if a critic or a fan says something critical about Compton, then the book describes why Compton might be right on the issue. Sometimes this is convincing. At other times it is not.

I loved Denis Compton’s biography. Tim Heald has written it beautifully in accessible prose, done his research well, and included beautiful anecdotes – some well known, and some lesser known – which are a delight to read. Heald even asks the question that I did – on why Compton was never knighted – and nearly finds the answer to that. This book takes us to that beautiful era between the ’30s and ’50s, when cricket was a more laidback and probably a more beautiful game, and keeps us there. I wish I had read this book when I was a teenager – Compton would have become my sporting hero then, alongwith Miller. If you are like me – that is, your favourite cricketers had retired before you were born – you will love this book. Or alternatively, if you love cricket history, you will love this book.

Have you read ‘Denis Compton : The Life of a Sporting Hero‘ by Tim Heald? What do you think about it?

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