Sunday Supplement: Notes from a foreign country

Tony Stafford

Tony Stafford

Sunday supplement

By Tony Stafford

Everyone has his heroes. I confess mine for the first few decades of my life was Denis Compton. I used to see his well-groomed Brylcreemed head to the left of the mirror in the barber’s shop next door to the betting shop in Clarence Road, Hackney where I once had a £2 win six-timer on unnamed favourites on a Saturday at the long-defunct Mullingar racetrack in Ireland. All six (two joints if I recall correctly after almost 50 years) won, but I did the lot at Clapton dogs the same night.

Jack the barber, whose son Tony had no hair even though he was in his early twenties, was a miserable character, who only seemed to be happy if his clippers drew blood, especially on the kids whose dads had them propped up on a board across the two arms of the seat.

Of course, that was long before that Mullingar bet and was already a few years after the great Denis’s retirement from cricket and also football. I still find it inconceivable he could have played in the 1938 Oval test in which Len Hutton scored a then record 364 in 903-7 declared against Australia and twelve years later played on the left wing in Arsenal’s FA Cup Final win over Liverpool.

A glorious double career would have been even greater but for the slight inconvenience of the 1939-45 Second World War, at the latter end of which Denis scored seven centuries in 17 innings playing in state cricket in India. He was almost a contemporary of my dad’s, a couple of years older I believe, and it was great when I met him for the only time, waiting for a train at Watford junction station en route to a Grand National.

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I took the liberty of introducing myself and was both surprised and delighted when the great man said: “I know, you write for the Telegraph”. It was with that moment in mind that I admired the efforts of his grandson Nick as he made his Test match debut in the First Test against India.

I pen these thoughts in the lunch interval of a match where a belatedly brave fight-back looks destined to disappointment, not least because of the incredible poor judgment of another temporary hero, Kevin Pietersen, whose fall from grace against left-arm spinners is almost ludicrous.

I’ve preferred to listen to the “stadium commentary” as Sky calls it, on the red button, and there’s been so much common sense spoken by all the famous Indian ex-cricketers, with Sunil Gavaskar and recent arrival Rahul Dravid to the fore. It seems ridiculous that virtually all Sky’s regulars, Michael Atherton apart, are closeted in a studio offering their opinion from West London. Living where I do, I’m ten miles closer to the action. I wonder they don’t all do their commentary on conference calls from their individual bedrooms.

One Englishman who is on site is Paul Collingwood, and while keen not to be too condemning of his former team mate Pietersen, though less reticent about the abysmal first ball slog from Ian Bell in the first innings, Colly, too, offers sense in abundance.

Winter tests are a test indeed of staying power. I left the alarm until 6.30 on days one and two, but it was a 4 a.m. kick off yesterday and today (Sunday), so I only got the back end of my more recent hero Verinder Seywag’s amazing ton. I believe he has more natural talent even than Tendulkar and if there’s one player I do not mind scoring big against England it’s he.

While with Compton senior, Pietersen and Seywag, the ability is all too clear, none of them has the unrelenting will to win and the ability to extract the maximum from his talent as Alastair Cook. I first heard of him when as a young kid he played what I recall as his first game for Essex first team and scored a double century in a day against the Australians. Apparently he had broken all records in his time at Bedford school and the path to the top has been unfailingly steady.

In a one-sided affair, he got to the 21st century of his career to stand level with Pietersen and Andrew Strauss and only one behind Hammond, Boycott and Cowdrey. He no doubt will stretch far beyond that trio and only an act of God (and the banning of left-arm spin bowling) can enable Pietersen to keep pace.

At 27, the world is at his feet, and his achievement of scoring centuries in each of his first three tests as captain – he stood in for Strauss twice in Bangladesh last winter – beats anything ever previously achieved in the entire history of test cricket. Like so much in this great year of sport, Alastair Cook gives us something of which to be truly proud.

Denis Compton would have enjoyed seeing his grandson’s promising debut and also his former team’s 5-2 demolition of Spurs, albeit with the complicity of another old boy, nutty Adebayor. Denis used to fly down the wing, and quite unnoticed his 80 years on successor Theo Walcott, incidentally a close relative of Clyde Walcott, a great Compton adversary and one of the West Indies Three W’s – the others were Everton Weekes and Sir Frank Worrell – brought his tally of goals for the season to nine with the last goal on Saturday.

He has achieved this despite starting only six times and with nine substitute appearances. In his previous six seasons, he scored one, then seven, six, four, a best of 13 in 2010-11 (from 25 plus 13) and 11 last year (41 plus 5).

That 11 last year was bettered only by Robin van Persie’s 37, so nine by now is amazing. Also quite special is the fact that much-maligned Arsene Wenger’s three new signings Olivier Giroud (seven), Lukas Podolski (six), and Santi Cazorla (four) have contributed 17 together. Considering that no Arsenal player other than van Persie and Walcott managed more than six last season shows that maybe the signing of Giroud and the others was not too silly after all.

It is a pity that the weather has prevented us getting a pre Tingle Creek Chase look at Sprinter Sacre at Cheltenham this afternoon. With heavy in the going description, Nicky Henderson would have been in danger of compromising his special young chaser’s speed, so we have to wait a couple of weeks more to see him.

Jumping though is getting going nicely. Funny how you can adjust to having only the all-weather Flat with nice jumping. I’ve done that already. Only 18 weeks to go to the Lincoln!

Tony

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