Kent 405 for 5 (Compton 129, Cox 100*, Muyeye 58, Stevens 51) trail Essex 514 by 109 runs
Who’s the most in-form opener in England right now? It’s quite the hot topic, with the Test team in such a state of flux, but if – after a hit-and-miss tour of the Caribbean – your answer was “that bloke who plays for Kent”, then it’s just possible you zeroed in on the wrong man at the top of the order.
“I went away this winter and it did a lot for my cricket,” Compton said. “I played in Zimbabwe and both the cricketing experience and the life experience, being in a different part of the world, was good for me and stood me in good stead for this first game. I’m very thrilled to get that score. Just purely and simply to spend time in the middle at this time of the year is what it’s all about for me. It’s nice to put in practice the things I’d worked hard in the winter over.”
Even without the hamstrung Joe Denly, who seems unlikely to feature again after pulling up sharply in the field, Kent have scarcely blinked in the face of Essex’s total. Their close-of-play 405 for 5 – a deficit of 109 – was further bolstered by a pair of eye-catching fifties from Tawanda Muyeye and Darren Stevens, although their looks to the heavens after falling when well set spoke volumes about where this particular contest is heading.
Despite a considerable amount of huff and puff from Essex’s quicks, for whom Sam Cook was once again the pick with 2 for 56, the true bowling honours belonged the limbs-akimbo twirlers of Dan Lawrence – who now answers to the nickname of the “Essex Murali” after his exploits on similarly unforgiving decks in the Caribbean – and most particularly, Matt Critchley – the “Chorley Chandresekhar”, perhaps? – who was far from flattered by figures of 2 for 69 in 28 overs of skilful, if still-raw, legspin.
He was thrown the ball for the first time in his Essex career midway through the morning session, and offered an above-the-eyeline threat from the outset, although there was plenty guile on show too, in particular a brace of googlies to deliver two prised-out lbws and cap a truly excellent club debut. With Simon Harmer still to return from international duty, there’s reason to believe a pitch of this nature could yet play to the hosts’ strengths in the months to come.
For now, however, it offered the sort of rewards that truly come to those who wait. For a man with such an evocative surname (and “yes, he most certainly is,” is the answer to the question on everyone’s lips…), Compton has had to take an incredibly scenic route to even this most precarious of opportunities – one that he would still be waiting for, had Kent themselves not chosen to rest Zak Crawley from this opening game, despite the ECB giving their blessing for him to play.
Unlike his cousin Nick – whose talents were talked up from his Harrow schooldays, and who was arguably the right man at the wrong moment in his brief England dalliance – Ben, now 28, has spent his past decade scrapping for recognition at a variety of Premier League clubs in Surrey, Nottinghamshire and, most notably, Richmond in Middlesex, for whom he topped the runs and averages for three consecutive seasons between 2016 and 2018.
In terms of the next step up, however, that has been harder graft for Compton. In 2019, Kent took a punt on his talents and gave him a second-team chance, which he duly seized with five centuries in the season, including one on debut against MCC Young Cricketers – a team for whom he had played one game, on the Denis Compton Oval no less, as a 21-year-old in 2015. But when he went out on loan to Notts later that season, all he could muster was a top score of 20 in five Championship appearances, either side of the Covid outbreak, in addition to a one-off half-century in the Royal London Cup.
“I joined Notts at the back end of 2019, when Haseeb Hameed had joined that autumn too,” Compton recalled. “So perhaps the opportunities I had were a bit more like batting for your life. Sometimes it’s really difficult to relax and actually play your best cricket in that scenario. I certainly got better as a player, and I’m in good relationships with everyone there. But I’ve learned a lot of things from that and it’s only benefited me I think. But it’s funny how things have come full circle.”
For the club that first came calling clearly saw something they liked, and at the first time of asking, he delivered with the same tenacity that had kept him clinging for so long to the fringes of professional recognition.
For more than six hours, including a feisty final session of the second day, Compton marshalled Kent’s unwavering innings, picking off 19 fours from 289 balls with scarcely an error but for the moment, on 98, when he slashed loosely at a wide one from Critchley and – as the ball bobbled past slip to third man – found himself acknowledging a hard-earned milestone a touch more sheepishly than he had perhaps pictured in his dreams.
“It’s been tough,” he acknowledged, recalling a journey that began when he moved from South Africa as an 18-year-old, with the intention of taking the club game by storm while studying for a politics and history degree, and demanding a career through sheer weight of runs. “But it was slow going and never really happened. And I had to work very hard to try and get an opportunity, and Kent actually did that for me. It’s a long road and there will be ups and downs over the summer. But I’m thrilled and it hasn’t really sunk in yet.”
Following his exploits on Twitter, Ben’s cousin Nick wrote: “I can’t tell you how proud I am of this young man. The perseverance and belief to keep going through years of club cricket. Amazing what happens when a supportive club with good people get behind someone!”
“I think the generational gap is quite an interesting one,” he said. “I think Nick looked more to emulate Denis than I did. Denis passed away when I was about four, so I kind of missed that. But obviously, I’ve always looked up to Nick and what he’s done in the game in England, and so that’s a more closely related thing for me. If I can achieve some of the things Nicholas did, then I’d be very chuffed with that.”
And despite his South African heritage, Compton – like his cousin – confirmed he is an England-qualified batter. “I’ll put you to sleep if I’m doing my job,” he said. As a trio of openers have set out to prove in this contest, there’s still just about a place for that in the modern game.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket