The Rise and Fall of Nick Compton: The England Years (Part 2)

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August 29, 2012

Andrew Strauss sits at home. England have just lost to South Africa, 2-0. Hashim Amla made 311 at The Oval. Kevin Pietersen’s text messages stole all the headlines. And for Strauss, bat in hand, the runs have dried up.

100 Tests, 50 as England captain. 15 years a professional. Over 7000 Test match runs. The 2009 Ashes, retained away in 2010/11. Leading England to the top of the Test cricket ladder. There are no shortage of highlights in his career.

Post-cricket thoughts consume him. Rumours abound that he’ll swap the politics of the dressing room for the politics of Westminster; surely Boris can be no harder to handle than KP? His decision is made. Tories or not, it’s time for Andrew Strauss to gracefully exit.

*          *          *

Nick Compton’s timing was perfect. Having settled in at Somerset with a prolific 2011, and scoring runs for fun in 2012, he was well placed to take over at the top of the order from Andrew Strauss upon the English captain’s retirement. But there was one hitch: Joe Root.

Then a youngster from Yorkshire, Root was the heir apparent to English batsmanship, and the only thing standing between Compton and an England cap. The selectors, however, recognised that it need not be a competition, selecting Root to bat in the problematic #6 spot — no batsman having made a solid claim to the middle order position after the retirement of Paul Collingwood — and choosing Compton to open the innings in India.

“Getting picked for England was a bit of a different domain. I didn’t just want to be another number on a sheet, another name in a squad — I wanted to play, I wanted to play well, and I wanted to be there for a number of years…I kept trying trying to set the bar higher and higher and push myself further and further.

“And that was a good place to be, because I became really highly tuned into the mental game, and how much of scoring runs was between the ears….when you tap into that, and you get really into it, you realise that it’s all about the emotions and what state of mind you’re in. I think your technique and your physical capabilities change from day to day, but the more mentally and emotionally consistent you can be, I believe you can get the most out of yourself based on that, rather than ‘I hope I’m hitting the ball well today’, because that’s going to change. You’re not going to hit the ball well every day, but if you get yourself into the right mental state you can make better decisions, not be anxious, not be tempted — all those things are controlled by the mind. So I became very into that, and very much a believer that if I got that right, I’d be consistent, and it worked.”

His elevation to England honours was the culmination of years of hard work at Somerset. In his mind, Compton had learned how to be a professional batsman; he knew his job, and he was good at it.

“That’s what I think I learned at Somerset — being a professional batsman. This is a job, and emotionally this is the state of mind I need to be in [to succeed]…I became very comfortable with that job, I knew what I did, I knew my game, I knew my body and that’s the way I thought of myself — as a professional batsman — and if you wanted me, you’d know that this is what I provide.”

The debut came in India, a country in which England have historically performed above (admittedly low) expectations, despite the challenges of the not-at-all-English weather, vibrant culture, spin-friendly pitches, bowling to Sachin Tendulkar, and the most dreaded of all Indian phenomena — ‘Delhi Belly’ [1].

For someone with no international experience, it was not easy to combine the step-up in quality with the wildly different context. Compton wasn’t in Taunton any more:

“[It was] very tough. I had about four weeks before India and when you’re on a roll, I’m the sort of guy who wants to keep going, I don’t want to stop…You get that momentum, and if you go away for three weeks, [you can lose it].

“The conditions were very difficult and we didn’t have much time to settle in to it, and I also had the stress of trying to make the team. I was in the squad, but I wanted to make the team, and all the talk was on Joe Root, so that made it pretty hard work because I had a bit of that distraction as well.

“So I just tried to stay pretty tight to what worked for me, there was no point in trying to do something different…I rate my defence against spin, and [going into the game] I didn’t want to play a big cover drive in the third over and nick off and sit in the changerooms. I wanted to experience standing at the crease, with Tendulkar and these blokes on the field, with 50,000 screaming Indians. I wanted to experience that, to say in twenty years time ‘I batted for two hours in a Test match’.

“The runs didn’t matter — if I made 10 runs in two hours, so be it. If I made 50, so be it. But I knew that if I batted time, with the likes of KP and Ian Bell in the team, I would be doing the right job for the team. And if it meant I had to go out like I did in Mumbai and slog 30-odd off 20-odd balls and we won a Test match, then that was what was required. But generally, as an opening batsman, you’re the foundation man. You’re there to set things up, you’re there to show character, to fight, to get through the tough period and hopefully cash in. But if you don’t, you’ve still done your job for the team.

“That’s my mentality on batting, really, and that’s what I tried to do in India — hold it together, stay tight, stay resolute and don’t get out, don’t give them anything and the runs will come.”

*          *          *

March 9, 2013

Compton, on a pair. England, almost 300 behind. Two days to play.

This is not easy. This is a fight. This is what Test match cricket is all about.

In Tim Southee and Trent Boult, Compton must blunt arguably the most promising pace duo in world cricket. In Brendon McCullum, he must contend with one of the most aggressive captains the game has seen — in a situation perfectly placed for aggression. Every delivery is a crisis; the stakes immense.

He confidently pushes his first ball past mid off for one. Pair avoided; crisis averted.

Only in the 85th over is the Compton-Cook partnership prised apart. Compton is on 99. Two overs left in the day. Nightwatchman Finn defends. Compton faces Southee, the man who took his wicket for nought in the first innings. It’s overpitched, searching for swing, the miracle ball to snare a double breakthrough. But the ball is on the pads, Compton calmly pushes it through midwicket and completes the single. His father is delighted, Compton punches the air. It’s not quite Steve Waugh circa-2003, but who cares? England’s hole is significantly shallower, and dream number two is checked off the list: Test match century.

The 310th crisis was one too far. The scorecards reads ’lbw b. Wagner, 117’. Job well and truly done. But Compton always wants more; more ruthlessness, less complacency. Salvaging the draw is all that matters, the personal milestone is never enough.

*          *          *

Michael Vaughan is essentially a Twitter troll. He is controversial, he picks fights. He plays a character. Unwaveringly and unashamedly partisan, he may not have been born on the right side of the border, but he’s a Yorkshireman through and through. So it was of little surprise, when Compton struggled in the return series against New Zealand, that the ex-England captain was at the forefront of a social media campaign to have Joe Root installed as Alastair Cook’s opening partner for the 2013 Ashes series.

Social media has power. From the Arab Spring, to Kevin Pietersen’s infamous ‘droos’ texts, to the beyond-self-parody Hulk Hogan racist sex tape tirade, we’ve all witnessed changes — differing in motivation, context and scale — driven by the might of the virtual sphere (even if my Twitter campaign to bring back Scott Kremerskothen never gained momentum). Certainly the exaggerated, inflammatory comments of Vaughan were not helpful to Compton’s cause. That, however, was not going to keep him down. In the midst of Vaughan’s social media pressure, Compton grafted his way to a maiden Test match century.

“In the First Test [in New Zealand], I got a duck in the first innings, my dad had flown over to watch me and I was decidedly unhappy.

“The Joe Root stuff was still going on like no tomorrow, Michael Vaughan was saying ridiculous things and that didn’t really help. I knew my second innings in that Test match was a pretty defining one, and I had root canal surgery the night before!

“I felt quite relaxed, from ball one I hit the ball down the ground and got two, straight off the mark to get off the pair which is always a nice feeling, and it all came back. The rhythm came back, leaving the ball outside the off stump, my balance, and I just kept fighting. And to back it up with a more fluent innings in the Second Test was great.”

Within the locus of England’s top three, Compton’s mentality was simultaneously a gift and a curse. With Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott similarly-inclined, grinding bowlers into the dust and setting platforms for a more expansive middle order, a key criticism of the English team was a lack of dynamism in the top order — dynamism that Joe Root could potentially provide. And with neither Cook nor Trott in peak form throughout 2012, pressure would always remain on their counterpart in the top order; settling into the team could not afford to be a lengthy process. As we’ve seen in many a losing team, the last in is often the first out, the casualty of underperformance from players with credit in the bank.

This was not the case with Compton. He was not the first of England’s merry-go-round at the top of the order; the cycle began after he was dropped, not before.

“I felt like I was always playing for my place, but I felt it was always a case of those being the cards I was dealt as an older guy coming into the team.

“I was a little surprised that after back-to-back centuries there wasn’t more of a ‘quietening’ of sorts. I think [the ECB] left it open, which I guess was difficult to take. Joe Root got a nice hundred at number five at Headingley, but number five is very different to opening and he was a young guy, and to be honest, it just didn’t make any sense to me.

“[I thought] it wasn’t the right move and they had no reason to change — if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. We still won the series comfortably, and I felt I did my job with Alastair Cook in that series despite not playing well…not making any excuses for my performances, but I was going through a bit of a tough time [with injury] at that stage and Andy Flower was aware of it, but I don’t think they really took that into consideration.”

*          *          *

May 23-28, 2013

Pre-match training. There’s rain in the air. Throw-downs with the King of Spain himself, Ashley Giles. Technique matters, bat on ball, moving the feet. Compton hasn’t made many in the last match, and he wants to make amends. He’s intense, he trains hard. He has to do his job.

One rears up at him, thuds into his unprotected ribs. He waves it off, nothing serious, he’ll be fine.

As the match wears on, ‘nothing serious’ has now reached ‘of concern’. Compton struggles to move, his breathing isn’t comfortable. As he struggles to field and is unable to throw without pain, he knows something is wrong. Scans will be necessary. He shuffles off for an MRI, his place on the field is taken by an enthusiastic youngster, bounding with excitement and energy at sharing the turf with Test cricketers.

The preliminary scans suggest a hairline fracture. Compton can keep going. He will if he needs to. But the inner realist speaks: today, he cannot do his job. Someone else can do it better. He does not take the field.

After careful analysis, ‘hairline fracture’ gives way to ‘deep bruising’. A distinction that is medically significant, but of little solace to Compton — either way, he is in pain.

That is not, however, how Andy Flower sees it. He is angry. Compton is bewildered by his coach’s response; he has no idea how to respond. Whispers from within the dressing room suggest some individuals within team management believe Compton simply didn’t want to field.

He is never contacted by England again.

*          *          *

While handling criticism of his ability is part and parcel of professional sport, questions of integrity are another thing entirely. When I directly question him over the injury, he unequivocally assures me there is no truth to the rumours:

“I’ve never made an excuse for poor performances…that probably hurt the most, because that’s my reputation…Whether I’m a good player or not is up to them to decide, but when it comes to [my integrity]…I felt very, very let down.”

The England dressing room in 2013 was a unique environment. Heavily controlled, ruled with the iron fist of pure logic and meticulous preparation, it strived for data-driven success.

But in spite of this scientific brand of cricketing conservatism, whereby every action had a reason, and every detail was backed by data, the change room was amazingly dysfunctional. Perhaps ironically, the existence of this dysfunction appears to be the only thing every member of the team can agree upon — even if they ascribe the cause of this in wildly differing directions. As eleven egos interact, telling eleven different stories and forming cliques, navigating the dressing room became just as difficult a challenge as the cricket itself. Put simply, Andy Flower was not much of a man-manager.

It was not a healthy environment, and, just as at Middlesex, Compton had no interest in the dressing room politics. His currency was runs. Recalling his under Flower, he stumbles over his words, all the diverse emotions and experiences coalescing in a way none outside of that inner sanctum can ever understand.

“It…it was intense. I think I came in probably naive to the intricate relationships that had formed over many years. I was, again a bit like coming into the Middlesex change room when I was 18, I was desperate to play international cricket and tried my heart out and wanted to give everything and score some runs. It was pretty intense… so I just tried to put my head down and score the runs to help the team, that was pretty much my focus.”

No matter how dysfunctional a dressing room, one crucial relationship is that between opening batsmen. Hayden and Langer, Greenidge and Haynes — the best opening pairings are two individuals who understand one another, who, to use Compton’s words, sing from the same songsheet. Statistically, Cook and Compton is England’s best post-Strauss opening combination, and hearing Compton’s thoughts on Cook-the-batsman, this is wholly unsurprising:

“I enjoyed [batting with Cook]…our thoughts on the principles of batting were very similar — fight hard, run hard, respect the balls that need to be respected, and look to bat long periods of time. I thought we had a good connection, I think our average of 58 was the third best in English history [2], and Tendulkar said to us after the series that he thought our opening partnership was one of the reasons we won the series, which for me was massive.

“I didn’t get a big score, but I thought I was hard to get out. They had to work hard for my wicket, and I set up foundations. It’s a team game, we can’t all bat like Kevin Pietersen, as much as we’d all like to, so for me those were the characteristics that made me happy. I’m very happy to be the solid, dependable rock.”

The combinations since have been altogether less solid, less dependable. Cook and Root lasted five Tests, Cook and Carberry five more. Sam Robson earned a full English summer of seven, only to be supplanted by the returning Jonathan Trott, batting out of position, for three matches. Now Adam Lyth has five Tests of his own, and at time of writing it appears likely that his stint will not exceed the bounds of the Ashes. Compton is bullish, convinced he was — and still is — the man for the job.

However, that self-belief is tempered by realism. When I brought up the recent articles advocating for Compton to return to the side in place of Adam Lyth, his response snaps back in a heartbeat — the chances of a recall are minute (if they exist at all), the reporting misguided:

“I don’t know the reality of the situation [but] I’ve not had any communication with England since that day, and that for me is something I found rather strange.”

The decision to drop Compton was not just about runs.

While Compton was understandably confused about the processes leading to his dropping, the Australian players were similarly stunned by his omission:

“Michael Clarke said to me that he couldn’t understand why I wasn’t playing in the last Ashes. Brad Haddin said the same thing, and Phil Hughes, alive and well as he was at the time, said ‘mate, all the boys don’t understand it’, and that was hard. I knew I should have played.”

“Not really knowing why hurt, because it’s all I ever wanted to do. It’s not been easy to come to terms with. If I understood why I could probably move on, but it’s hard to move on when I know in my heart and my head that I should still be playing. I know that one guy who can front up against those bowlers is me.”

“I haven’t scored masses of runs [like in 2012], but I want to play international cricket — and yes, I’m lucky to be playing cricket as a job — but I’ve always wanted more than that. I don’t want to settle for just being a county cricketer, that’s not my ambition. I continue to play on, but I find it increasingly difficult to work out what it is that [the ECB] don’t see in me that so many others seem to see in me up close and personal, because there seems to be quite a bit of support for me to play.”

His move back from Somerset to Middlesex is symptomatic of this shift in Compton’s career — single-mindedly batting in Taunton seems rather, well, meaningless when the goal is one you’ll never be allowed to achieve (he notes he’s been “categorically told” by Kevin Pietersen that he’s not wanted by Flower and co.). In London, he has his friends and family nearby. He can pursue other avenues alongside cricket — he’s looking to continue building a media career and enjoys photography.

Cricket has taken Compton places. First from South Africa to London. Then from Taunton to India, via a domestic season in Zimbabwe [3]. From a young, naive talent to a former Test opener. From ‘Grandson of Denis’ to ‘Nick’.

Perhaps the journey has been cut short prematurely. Perhaps it should have been him, not Adam Lyth, celebrating an Ashes series victory this week. Perhaps he was the one to face up to Mitchell Johnson, to provide added stability in a tumultuous English dressing room. But, rightly or wrongly, it was not to be.

In spite the politics, the agendas, the vendettas; the reactionary media perceptions, the vagaries of form, and Compton’s evolution as both batsman and man, one thing has remained undiminished.

“I want to be an international cricketer.”


Author’s Notes:
[1] Since this piece has been written, ten members of South Africa A have been hospitalised with food poisoning, forcing changes to their tri-series schedule and requiring the team to use their video analyst and an opposition played to substitute field. While far less common than it once was, food-related concerns are not entirely archaic.
[2] Their partnership actually ranks fifth — behind Hobbs/Sutcliffe, Hobbs/Rhodes, Hutton/Washbrook and Cowdrey/Pullar (minimum cut-off: 15 partnership innings).
[3] For those interested in the minutiae of eligibility criteria, Compton could have represented Zimbabwe through his mother. However, rumours of his nationality switch were greatly exaggerated. Compton notes that it was nothing more than a suggestion — one he felt was neither viable nor especially desirable. He wanted to play Test cricket for England.
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