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1 September 2023

The cruelty of cricket

Nick Compton had talent and a famous name, but the unforgiving sport both hid and exacerbated his insecurities.

By Jonathan Liew

Cricket, to its bones, is an intrinsically cruel game. The long hours of waiting and staring in bare pavilions. The long weeks of isolation and introspection on tour. The brutal finality of a batting dismissal. The brutal exposure of bowling. The interminable monotony of fielding. A ball hard enough to break your fingers, to bruise your ribs, even to kill you. The heat. The rain. The way it eats up whole chunks of your life, from morning to evening, from dank spring to chilly autumn. And at its highest levels, not just the furnace of external judgement but the existential angst of a sport that has never quite reckoned with its imperial and class-based contradictions.

Perhaps it is little wonder, then, that in recent years the misery memoir has become one of the richer seams of modern cricketing literature. Marcus Trescothick’s Coming Back to Me is not really an inquiry into an English batting genius but rather a case study in debilitating mental illness. Michael Vaughan’s Time to Declare is less a celebration of an Ashes-winning captain and more a portrait of subsequent breakdown and decline. Two of England’s finest all-rounders, Ben Stokes and Andrew Flintoff, have written painfully about their depression.

[See also: A battle for the soul of English cricket]

Why does this keep happening? How is it that these lavishly talented entertainers, paid to travel the world playing the game they love, end up so broken and chastened by the experience? And what does this tell us about the tolerability and worth of one of the world’s most popular sports? The tale of Nick Compton, a peripheral but strangely magnetic character in English cricket’s most turbulent decade, offers just a few answers.

Compton played just 16 times for England between 2012 and 2016, with mixed but underrated success. He was a stolid, stodgy batter, out of step with the flashing blades and bright lights of the Twenty20 format that was beginning to take over the sport. Certainly he wouldn’t get close to the current Test team under captain Stokes and coach Brendon McCullum, with its mantra of lawless entertainment and emphasis on attack at the crease. All Compton really had was an uncompromising defence, a fine record at county level and – courtesy of his grandfather Denis – one of the most famous cricketing surnames of them all.

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The problem – and it really was a problem – was that Denis Compton was not just one of England’s greatest batters but one of its best-loved and most culturally resonant. He was a fixture of the gossip columns, advertised Brylcreem and numerous other products, played in an FA Cup final for Arsenal, was referenced by John Cleese in Fawlty Towers decades after he retired. To a generation of young men he was a national hero, a ray of light piercing the gloom of postwar austerity. “There was no rationing in an innings by Compton,” the great cricket writer Neville Cardus famously put it. And, honestly, his grandson Nick was a fine cricketer too. But let’s face it. He was never going to be Denis, and he knew it.

I interviewed Compton in 2012, just after he had been picked for England for the first time, for a tour of India. I expected him to be euphoric. Instead it immediately struck me that there was a kind of sadness to him, a reflectiveness verging on darkness. We spent most of our conversation discussing setbacks. The pressure of that famous name. The self-doubt that dogged his early career. The car crash that paralysed his younger sister – a crash Compton reveals in his book to have been a suicide attempt by a woman in the grip of drug addiction. He was already 29 and his first shot at international cricket was also likely to be his last. The future haunted him. The past haunted him. All that was left was the present, and this too offered few comforts.

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Even by the standards of this cruel and insular sport, Compton was joining a particularly cruel and insular team. England under the coaching aegis of Andy Flower between 2009 and 2014 was a hugely successful but largely joyless assemblage, ultimately bonded by nothing but its own ambition, each link no stronger than the runs and wickets that sustained it. The number of lasting friendships it produced is probably trumped by the number of misery memoirs it has generated. For Compton, an introspective, obsessive and often tortured performer, you could scarcely have designed a better environment for exposing his insecurities.

Compton had been on medication for depression since the age of 13. In his worst moments he would struggle to get dressed or leave the house, and would entertain thoughts of suicide. He formed few meaningful relationships and enjoyed little in the way of an exterior life. The immense privilege that gilded his upbringing also had its drawbacks: in his childhood in South Africa, and in his teenage years at Harrow School, people would clock the famous name and good looks, the unfiltered stream of consciousness and constant search for emotional reassurance, and conclude that this was – in essence – an arrogant tosser who needed to be taken down a peg.

[See also: Why cricket is the most moving art]

But cricket would be his salvation. It had to be. Talent and name-recognition opened the doors that Compton could not open himself. After Harrow came Middlesex, and a chance to play at Lord’s in front of the stand bearing his grandfather’s name. Early success gave him a mission and a sense of self-esteem. “There were two, polar opposite versions of myself when I was a child – the brash, overly ambitious youngster and the isolated, fragile and emotional boy,” he writes, “and every significant decision was made to appease the first, often to the detriment of the second.”

What goes unmentioned – and perhaps one of the very few blind spots in a searingly comprehensive book – is masculinity. Cricket, in common with many male-dominated spaces, has long been associated with a certain cultural shame in admitting weakness, fallibility, indecision. Those long hours in dressing rooms and long weeks on tour are really a kind of social selection process. At every stage of his career, Compton quickly learned what was expected of him: score runs, be quiet, look impregnable, fit in. Later in his England career, Compton decides to confide his self-doubt and insecurity to a teammate in the bathroom, who promptly goes to team management and informs them of Compton’s fragility.

Behind the scenes, the Flower regime was falling apart, and so was Compton. The exclusion and reintegration of Kevin Pietersen – another mercurial South African-born batter whose face never quite seemed to fit – had created damaging cliques in the dressing room. Compton could trust nobody and nobody really trusted him. He would draw the curtains of his hotel room to convince himself he was at home, scribble furiously in his diary, resist any temptation to ask for help or advice. In the summer of 2013, after informing Flower that he was unable to field due to a severely bruised rib, the coach unloaded on him in rage, described his attitude as “pathetic”, and dropped him from the team soon after.

So did cricket help or hinder Compton with his issues? Did it provide him with the tools for emotional sustenance or did it lead to emotional disintegration? In short, did anything good come out of this all-consuming obsession? Money, for a while. Fame, with all its attendant gremlins. The transient dopamine of success. Belonging, albeit a belonging that was almost entirely conditional and transactional. But cricket, by its very nature, also has a habit of burning hinterlands, in feeding and nourishing the obsession to the point where nothing else remains. When Compton writes that “the only good mental health I knew was scoring runs”, your heart breaks a little for him.

“I am an unfinished person,” Compton states at the start of the book. And for all the deeply confessional overtones here – a text that doubles as a kind of therapy – there is also a broader applicable lesson. Mental health in cricket is certainly taken more seriously than it ever has been. In large part, “Bazball” – the ultra-aggressive style of cricket practised by England under Stokes and McCullum – can be seen as a rejection of the sport’s elemental cruelty, a conscious decision to put joy and personal fulfilment above the cold numbers of batting averages and bowling economy rates. The real question is why such a radical and violent correction was necessary in the first place. For all its success on the field, English cricket seems to have produced an awful lot of unfinished people.

Nick Compton
Allen & Unwin, 320pp, £20

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[See also: The risky genius of Ben Stokes]

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