Even Ben Compton doesn’t quite understand what’s happened in these last few weeks. Talking to him, it’s clear he hasn’t had time to reflect on the run of form that’s made the Kent opener the leading batsman in the country, and won him a call-up for the County Select XI to play New Zealand on Thursday.
“It’s all been so relentless that I don’t think it’s really sunk in,” he says. “I’ve just been busy trying to stay in the moment.” Compton has played nine games in nine weeks, and made 129 against Essex, 104 not out and 115 against Lancashire, 89 against Hampshire, 93 against Yorkshire, 47 and 63 not out against Surrey, 140 and 68 not out against Northants. With 878 County Championship runs at an average of 109 he must worry that if he thinks too hard about it he’ll wake himself up.
This time just last year, Compton was playing for Plumtree in the Nottinghamshire Premier League, against Radcliffe-on-Trent, Cavaliers & Carrington, and Kimberley Institute, picking off runs against club bowlers who had played for a minor county, or had a match or two in first-class cricket. Compton was one of them himself. He came here from South Africa when he was 19. In 10 years of trying to get ahead in English cricket, he’d played five first class matches for Nottinghamshire, when he’d made 98 runs at an average of 14 and a top score of 20.
The rest of the time, Compton was playing for Wimbledon, or Richmond, or Plumtree, or slogging away in the county second XIs. Now he’s taking hundreds off some of the best attacks in the country. “I understand it comes across like I’ve come from nowhere,” Compton says, “People ask me where I’ve been and I try to explain that I had two-and-half years at Notts and that I was the leading run scorer in the country in second-team cricket for the last couple of years. It’s just that it’s all been away from first-team level.”
After Nottinghamshire let Compton go at the end of last summer he went out to play for the Mountaineers in Zimbabwe. Since then he’s made 1,357 first class runs at an average of 97, and another 360 at 52 in one-day cricket. At Nottinghamshire, he had been competing with Haseeb Hameed, who the club had signed at the same time, and he found first-team opportunities were so rare that he “felt like I was batting for my life”.
Now he’s learned to be more relaxed about it. It helped that Kent, who knew Compton from a spell in their second XI, were so clear about what they wanted from him. They needed a steady left-handed batsman. “I can’t promise,” he told them, “but I think I can do that for you.”
You can understand why Compton had felt so desperate at Nottinghamshire. He had been waiting six years for that chance to prove to himself, and everyone else, that he could do it. “I knew I wanted to be a pro in England,” says Compton. “The dream was there from a young age but what was difficult for me was that I was on the outside for such a long time. Trying to earn an opportunity was something I really found difficult. I just didn’t get a chance.
“I was just playing club cricket, trying to show what I could do, and doing a lot of work behind the scenes to make sure that my game was in good order. But the reality is county teams look to recruit from their academies, and as a guy coming from the outside it feels like you’ve sort of got to do twice as well as those guys to get the opportunity.”
Hampshire gave him a couple of second XI games, so did Durham, but it never led to a contract. A lot of people would have given up. Compton stuck with it “because I felt very firmly that this was what I wanted to do, but those younger years, 20 to 24 were very tough.” He gave himself until he was 26, and the end of the Open University degree he was studying for. In the meanwhile, he survived on what he earned in club cricket, and by coaching. Nottinghamshire got him just in time. When that didn’t work out, he was lucky Kent were smart enough to take a chance on him.
This isn’t just a story about Compton, but about opportunity in English cricket. If you don’t know, or hadn’t already guessed, he is part of one of the great cricketing dynasties. His father, uncle, and great uncle all played first-class cricket, his cousin, Nick, played for England, Somerset, and Middlesex, and his grandfather, Denis, was (of course) one of the greatest batsmen who ever played the game. He died when Ben was three so he only knows him “through stories, and family chats, or old guys telling me: ‘Oh I watched your grandfather in 1947’”.
Nick was his role model growing up. Imagine having all that going for you and still finding it so hard to break your way into the game because you didn’t come up through the usual route. Now imagine how much harder again it must be for all the players out there who don’t have one of the most famous names in the sport behind them, or access to a network of family connections, or the ability to support themselves on what they can earn in club cricket. There are a lot of them out there.
Compton has played with and against some himself. “I know a lot of guys who decided to move on, lads who ended up out of the sport by 24, when, realistically, the prime years for a batsman start when they’re 27 and you really begin to understand your game,” he says. “I always felt like I was doing all the right things, it just wasn’t in the place where people were looking.”