My history hero: Phil Tufnell chooses Denis Compton (1918-97)
Broadcaster and former cricketer Phil Tufnell chooses Denis Compton as a history hero
Denis Compton: in profile
Denis Compton was one of England’s greatest-ever cricketers, as well as enjoying a successful footballing career.
A Middlesex legend, he played in 78 Test matches and is one of only 25 cricketers to have scored more than 100 centuries in first-class cricket. As an Arsenal player, he was a member of the League Cup and FA Cup-winning teams in 1948 and 1950. The Denis Compton Oval is named in his honour.
When did you first hear about Compton?
As a boy, from my father. I grew up in a sports-mad household, and my dad was a massive Middlesex and Arsenal fan – as I am. When I wasn’t playing cricket in the back garden, knocking the heads off roses, I’d be listening to the family talking about Denis Compton. I suppose I just inherited my dad’s love and admiration for the great man.
What kind of man was Compton?
The son of a painter and decorator, he grew up in north-west London. While still a boy, he scored a century as captain of an Elementary Schools XI. He was a handsome chap, adding a touch of glamour to the game – “a bit of a one”, as they say, with a twinkle in his eye. He wanted to win, but never took things too seriously. If things didn’t work out as he’d hoped on the day, he’d just pick himself up and look ahead to the next match.
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What made him a hero?
First and foremost, his extraordinary ability as a cricketer. A first-class batsman and bowler, he scored his first Test century aged just 20. One Aussie opponent, Sir Don Bradman – another legend – said that he was one of the greatest cricket players he’d ever seen, which is praise indeed. Second, he played for my beloved Arsenal; nowadays it’s hard to imagine a great cricketer also playing for a football team in the top division. Third, there was a real joie de vivre about him – he loved his cricket but he also loved life. He was the sort of chap people just wanted to be around.
What was his finest hour?
Where to start? He hit nearly 2,500 runs in 1939 alone, including 120 against the West Indies at Lord’s. Like other sportsmen of his generation, he lost some of his best years to the Second World War – he served in the army in India – but went on to thrill fans with his magnificent batting for country and county in the late 1940s and early 1950s, scoring famous centuries against the Aussies and South Africans. He had numerous finest hours!
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Is there anything that you don’t particularly admire about him?
Nothing springs to mind.
Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?
We both played cricket for Middlesex and England; like him, I was a left-arm unorthodox spin bowler. Unlike him, I sadly never got to play for the Gunners! I’d also like to think that I had a bit of his devil-may-care attitude to the game.
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What would you ask Compton if you could meet him?
Luckily, I did get to meet him when I was a young man, and I asked him if all the things my dad told me about him were true. “Most, but not all!” he chuckled.
Phil Tufnell is a former England cricketer who is part of the BBC’s Test Match Special team. His latest book, How Not to Be a Cricketer, is out now in paperback
This article was first published in the January 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
York Membery is a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine, the Daily Mail and Sunday Times among other publications. York, who lives in London, worked on the Mirror, Express and Times before turning freelance. He studied history at Cardiff University and the Institute of Historical Research, and has a History PhD from Maastricht University.
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