The Rise and Fall of Nick Compton: Becoming an Underdog (Part 1)

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November 16, 2012

Nick Compton sits in the English dressing room, deep in the bowels of Sardar Patel Stadium. Strapping on his pads, preparing his gloves. He is about to realise his dream, though undoubtedly it does not quite match up with the way he envisioned it as a child. With Alastair Cook by his side, he walks out onto the field. He’s familiar with this patch of turf after two days of fielding in the harsh Ahmedabad sun. But that’s unimportant; everything else fades. Nick Compton is opening the batting for England.

The second over (Cook takes eight from the first). He takes strike. Zaheer Khan, perhaps slightly past the peak of his powers, but a formidable opponent nonetheless, ambles in. The ball is on a good length, on or around the off stump. Bread and butter. Compton gets in line and defends it to cover. No run.

The sixth ball he faces in Test cricket is spin, and number forty five spins directly from middle stump into the hands of slip; Compton’s certainly got himself the full Indian experience. Almost an hour after taking guard, with nine runs to his credit, ball number fifty-three spins alarmingly, R Ashwin’s lackadaisical action belying the amount of turn he extracts from the cracking, dusty surface. The red leather worms its way between bat and pad, finding space where none ought to be. Stumps rattle, bails dislodge. Compton’s first foray is over.

*         *          *

Nick, son of Richard, grandson of Denis. The surname Compton is English cricketing, no, sporting, royalty. Sports-mad from the start, and arguably destined for greatness. By almost every measure, he was perfectly placed to achieve his dream. Born and raised in South Africa, he traversed the country’s famously-strong schools system, before moving to England on a sporting scholarship.

“[It was] a very sports-mad, sunny country. All I can remember is playing soccer, rugby, football, swimming, athletics, hockey — whatever it was, I was doing it. And I think, coming to England, it was a slightly different culture. Most poignantly, becoming a professional at Middlesex, I was probably quite naive and had a natural ignorance from being young, so I didn’t quite understand the politics and everything else. I was just a young kid who was desperate, from the age of 11 or 12, to be a professional cricketer and follow in the footsteps of some of my heroes, you know, to play at Lord’s and score a hundred in a Test match. The kind of dreams you have as a young kid.”

A contract at the club synonymous with his grandfather, Middlesex (home ground: Lord’s), came as he left school. There was England Under-19 representation, recognised as a main pathway to full honours. Those full honours almost seemed an inevitability, the story’s logical progression.

When you speak to Compton, elements of this upbringing are apparent. There’s still more than a hint of South Africa in his accent, and his manner of speaking is wholly consistent with a man who once began a Social Science degree before cricket became a full-time occupation. He openly admits to liking the nicer things in life; his Instagram account featuring images of coffee shops that could only be described as ‘hipster’ alongside evidence of his fledgling media career; health food and a Vespa contrast with the atmosphere of a cricketing dressing room.

It is hard not to consider Compton within the locus of privilege, however, this surface image contrasts deeply with the message sent by his on-field performances; like one of his major influences, Justin Langer, before him, Nick Compton has made himself an underdog, eschewing much of the flashiness and natural talent to grind out a career as an ultra-consistent accumulator.

“[Getting yourself in, getting yourself to 30], that is the key to batting. ‘On his day, he can do X and Y’, ‘On his day’ he’s a good player. But it’s like, no, you’ve got to try to make every day your day. Yeah, on your day, which happens three times a year, you get a hundred off a hundred balls and you think ‘that was so easy’. But trust me, most of the time is not your day, and that doesn’t mean you go ‘oh well, it’s not my day’. You’ve still got to do your job.

“It’s like going to the office with a headache, you’ve still got to get through 9-5. You’ve still got to find a way of doing your job — and that is becoming a professional batsman.”

*         *          *

April 18, 2007

The County Ground. Taunton. Sleepy old Somerset. Home to cider, Peter Trego, and little else. A little old fashioned; a time-warp in the west. Two famous surnames from days gone by top the Middlesex scoresheet — Compton and Hutton. But it isn’t Denis and Len taking guard, no, it’s Nick and Ben. Two high-class bowlers, Charl Willoughby and Andy Caddick, tower at the top of their respective marks. They are incisive on any surface, even one indistinguishable from the A303 under the team bus. The first hour is a struggle; when Hutton departs just after drinks, he has 17 to his name; the score reads 39. Compton battles, fighting his way to thirty, working hard for his runs. Doing his job. Close to tea, caught Spurway bowled Blackwell. 67 to his name, just short of his ‘Double Cowan’. Job done.

Below him, Owais Shah, Ed Smith, Billy Godleman and David Nash all prosper. Runs flow appreciably. Middlesex declare at 600.

Somerset respond with a scarcely-believable 850. Justin Langer: 315.

*         *          *

Challenges befall every cricketer at every level — selection politics and periods of poor form are near-ubiquitous, in spite of the old cliche of meritocracy or that old adage, ‘form is temporary, but class is permanent’. Many accept their lot, recognising that they’ll constantly be in and out of the side, happy just to have the opportunity, inconsistent and unfair as it may be. Compton did not, as he recalls his earliest time at Middlesex. He wanted more.

“I got into the environment and I was pretty fresh faced…and I think the initial year of professional cricket was very, very tough. Obviously, the dynamics of a change room of English guys who have other agendas, who are maybe older than you, who don’t feel quite the same way you do and maybe had it tougher. You had to play the game and I don’t think I was very good at playing the game as such, I just literally wanted to score runs and play well and be in the team.

“I think those initial years were tough, I think people were quite hard on me. I couldn’t quite understand why it was as difficult as I thought it was. [I thought that] that we should all be good to each other, that we should all want the best for each other — but I realised there was a lot more to the personal vendettas, there was a lot more going on. So that was quite an eye-opener, more of a learning curve and about growing up more than anything else regarding the cricket.”

For a man who loved playing the game, spending time on the sidelines was difficult for Compton, especially when he believed he deserved his place. He speaks of how the 2007 season was particularly difficult for him. After breaking through with almost 1300 First Class runs at 47 in 2006, and touring Bangladesh with the England Lions in the winter that followed, it seemed Compton was realising his promise and moving forwards. However, 2007 was wracked with inconsistency — and Compton’s game suffered for it:

“In 2006 I had a great season, and then the next year Ed Smith didn’t play me, having come back from [an England Lions] tour and being the leading runscorer, Middlesex’s batsman of the year, and then I didn’t play [much] the next year. Those moments really hurt me, it was tough to establish my own way forward, without having some sort of preconceived perception [placed on me]. It didn’t matter what I did, I couldn’t really just crack on and move forward.”

In an underperforming Middlesex side, struggling for opportunities and, as he openly admits, recognising his naivety in dealing with the cricketer’s equivalent of water-cooler politics, he made the decision to leave the club so strongly associated with his name. His destination? Sleepy old Taunton. Somerset County Cricket Club.

“When Angus Fraser came back to me and was really keen for me to remain at [Middlesex], the opportunity really came to go to Somerset. I just thought it was time to work things out for myself. I think there was a lot of history at the club with my family and having come over as a 13-year-old it was all I knew. And obviously it was away from that — it couldn’t have been any further away from that.”

He came off the back of another disappointing season at Middlesex, albeit one punctuated by Compton’s own personal run-making success, to be the logical replacement for the retiring Langer. The reason for the move was obvious — Compton wanted a fresh start, separate from historical influence and inner-city distractions, to push on towards his dream of international honours; to seize upon opportunities not offered at Middlesex. In short, he wanted to build his own identity, to break away from the historical determinism his surname implied. Somerset, a highly-professional Division One club, with a strong coaching team under Brian Rose and featuring some greats of the county game, was the perfect destination. The decision to move was simultaneously easy and hard, as Compton explains:

“To me, Middlesex at the time was very underachieving…we had excellent individuals but I wasn’t going anywhere with my life [and career]. I’d become very good friends with Justin Langer [1], and had the chance to go to Somerset which was a club that, at the time, was at the top of the tree in all forms of the game and had some players — the likes of Langer, [Marcus] Trescothick, [Craig] Kieswetter, [James] Hildreth, [Charl] Willoughby — who were an exceptional team. Even today it still is — and probably will be — the best team I’ve ever played in.”

*         *          *

May 31, 2012

Worcestershire resume at 3/270. Mitchell had laid the platform, Phillip Hughes notched up 50 on debut, and the evergreen Solanki pushed home the advantage. But the focus was not on Worcestershire’s innings — the focus wasn’t on the match at all. No, Nick Compton was the centrepiece. 941 to his seasonal tally, he fielded in touching distance of the greatest of records — 1000 First Class runs by the end of May.

An arbitrary figure, but one nonetheless associated with the greatest of greats — WG and his beard, Bradman’s ruthlessness, Graeme Hick’s domineering potential. And here was Nick Compton, with two days to make the 59 required to join that elusive club. But no, the coin had fallen Worcestershire’s way; they made first use of the New Road pitch.

The tattooed cult hero, Peter Trego. The boyish twins, Craig and Jamie Overton. Ireland’s young left arm spin prodigy, George Dockrell. Worcestershire only add 70 to their overnight score. Compton has the whole afternoon to reach his mark.

Skies are leaden, moisture hangs in the air. Suppiah and Barrow go early. Compton is unbeaten on 950 when the skies open. Little more than a drizzle, but it’s enough. So close, yet so far. In and out of the Umpire’s Room he goes, is this a selfish desire to join the greats? No, it isn’t that simple. He wants his record, yes. But runs mean wins, and wins need runs. He wants to do his job, to do it as well as the best. In Compton’s mind, the personal and the collective are inherently entangled.

Day Three. June 1st. Compton makes 108. 1049. But it’s too late, the record does not fall. All on the toss of a coin. He curses the English weather — this is no childhood African summer — yet still blames himself: “I could have got it in our last game against Durham if I’d been more ruthless and less complacent.” [2]

*         *          *

In no uncertain terms, the move to Somerset changed Nick Compton’s life. In 2009, he was a county player with a famous surname, a handy top-order batsman who had found his level. By 2012, he was in the form of his life, almost breaking that mythical barrier of 1000 First Class runs by the end of May. Robbed by the English weather with May 31st washed out, he brought it up the following day.

So what sparked this turnaround? Was the move to Somerset the defining factor in his career, or did the move just coincide with Compton learning his game and understanding how he wanted to, and ought to, play the game? The man himself is unequivocal; the changes to his performance ran far deeper than a patch of good form:

“I needed to challenge myself and find out about myself in my own right, rather than having the Compton name at Lord’s and all the history at Middlesex. I wanted to give it a go and I wanted to play a better level of cricket, and that’s exactly what it was…the step up was incredible. The professionalism of Somerset was quite incredible. I realised pretty soon that I had to step up and get my game together.

“The move helped me massively. One, I think the role definition that Somerset gave me was very, very clear….Somerset is a quiet place, not a huge amount going on…the training was tougher, the players were tougher and the results and expectations were very high.

“I think for me, that whole mentality really helped me. Trescothick was an exceptional player at the time and we had a lot of stroke-players. I realised that I couldn’t really compete with that, and I felt a bit of initial pressure to try to show the team how good I was, and it was taking me away from what it is I do well…so I almost thought to myself ‘screw this, I’m going to get in this team, and I’m going to fight, and I’m going to bat all day.

“I kept that in mind, and over time the more consistency I got, and slowly I started to form my own identity, in terms of being the rock, being the support….I scored more and more runs by staying at the crease. I acknowledge it wasn’t so much about scoring runs, it was a case of ‘I want to be out here’, and if I’m at the crease then the team will succeed…and that’s effectively how I started to build up my own identity and my consistency, and my way of playing — the mentality and technique that goes with it. And that really was a massive help to me to stay in the team.

“I think also, being in Somerset without any family around, my focus was entirely on my cricket, I had to make it…that made me mentally tougher, it made me value every innings. It made me learn how to focus really hard, and also I wanted to go home knowing I had some runs because it was a pretty lonely place knowing I didn’t have any help.”

Compton had isolated himself from every possible distraction. The Compton name, the business of city life in London, the history of Lord’s. For many, this single-minded focus would be destructive, living and breathing cricket proving terminal to their careers. But not Nick Compton; he thrived on the pressure and was hungry for runs. He would let nothing stop him from achieving his goals. Somerset let him break away and forge his own path, an option never previously offered to him. Simultaneously, the expectations placed on him were clear — his job was to score industrial quantities of runs. And it paid dividends, as his hugely consistent runscoring forced him into England contention.

“[Playing for England] was everything I dreamed about. Scoring those runs, having the attention on you, it gave me a buzz and a reason to wake up in the morning. I mean, yeah, there was a bit more anxiety, but it was more an excitement anxiety, like there was a momentum with me as I went out to bat and I just kept scoring runs. I kept finding a way of scoring runs and it built up and built up. There was the 1000 runs before the end of [May] and I wanted that so badly. The more runs I got, the more hungry I got, the more determined I got, the more ambitious I got, and it kind of breeds itself. I put a lot of that success down to determination, fight, hunger and that willingness to succeed.

“The more runs I got, the more hype I got, and the more I wanted it.”

And soon enough, Nick Compton would get it.


Author’s Notes:
[1] Langer was Somerset’s overseas professional and captain at the time, having retired from international cricket after the 2006/07 Ashes series.
[2] Quote taken from The Guardian (Andy Wilson, 1 June 2013).
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