Having scored back-to-back centuries in New Zealand early last year, three Test matches later Nick Compton was dropped ahead of the Ashes double-header. Now, with the winter debacle having left England in a state of flux, the Somerset batsman senses an opportunity to prove he’s got what it takes to be a successful Test match opener. He spoke to Jo Harman about his frustration at missing out on facing Mitchell Johnson this winter and put forward his case for the defence.
Let’s go back to the start of your England career and the series win in India in late 2012. How comfortable did you feel in that environment?
Firstly, it was really just an incredible privilege to be on an England tour, playing with guys that I’ve wanted to emulate in a series of that magnitude, winning a series over there for the first time in 28 years. To start with I was quite nervous but I was determined to continue playing the brand of cricket that got me selected. When you come into a new environment you’ve always got a few new challenges, winning your teammates’ respect and that sort of thing. That always takes time, it’s not going to happen overnight. Fortunately I managed to do the first job, which was to get selected, and I think once I got selected it was a little bit easier to calm down and really focus on my role.
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And you saw your job as batting time? Soaking up as many deliveries as possible?
I’ve always believed in building foundations. I wanted to build a world-class defence because my journey was about scoring hundreds and to score hundreds you have to spend a long time out in the middle, and to spend a long time out in the middle you have to have a good enough defence to keep out the best bowling. It’s not rocket science but from there I think my game has really come on a long way. In India I was very keen to try and make the most of the experience. So I was pleased with the way I went about things and when I spoke to Graham Gooch and Andy Flower they were really pleased with my application, but the one thing that was missing was that big score. I thought I had a couple of opportunities to get it, so that was niggling away at me a little bit.
So it must have come as a huge relief when you hit back-to-back centuries in the Test series in New Zealand that followed?
Yeah, there was a bit of conjecture as to whether I should be opening the batting so this was the time to put in a couple of big performances. I was aware of where things stood – it was very obvious what I needed to do. My dad had flown out to New Zealand having not been in India and I got nought in the first innings at Dunedin. On the second night I had a really bad toothache, it was killing me, and I remember going to the emergency dentist after the day’s play and I ended up having emergency root-canal surgery. That night I got back and had an almighty fight with my dad – I was in a terrible mood – but I woke up the next day and remember thinking, ‘If this is your last chance to play for England, how would you want to go about it?’ I was confident and positive and went on to make a hundred. My dad was in the ground and at the end of every over it was nice to look over at him – he was holding his fist up, as if to say ‘Come on, keep going!’ We saved the game and then to go on and get back-to-back Test hundreds was pretty awesome.
Then you come home and there’s an incredible amount of scrutiny on the line-up during the home series against New Zealand ahead of the Ashes, with several high-profile commentators such as Michael Vaughan saying Root should take your place at the top of the order. Did you feel like people were waiting for an excuse to move you to one side?
Yeah, exactly. There’s no doubt that the energy was for Joe, I was aware of that. But those are the cards you get dealt and it was a case of me needing to perform and unfortunately, if I’m totally honest, I didn’t take my opportunity with two hands, I only took it with one. That was the area where I suppose I let myself down but I think it was surprising coming back from New Zealand that there still were doubts over my place given what I did out there and the partnerships Cookie and I had produced there and in India. I thought we had a good relationship. But I gave them an opening.
Were you trying too hard in that home series against New Zealand?
I think it probably looked that way and I don’t think I was in great form, if I’m honest with you. I’d also broken a finger ahead of the first Test in the Lord’s indoor school and had a badly bruised rib during the second match at Headingley after Ashley Giles hit me in the nets, which meant I couldn’t field for the last two days – it wasn’t a good time for me! But if you look at the scores in the top order, no one really scored many runs. Cookie got a hundred in the second innings at Headingley but up until then there hadn’t been a lot of top-order runs from either side. Tim Southee and Trent Boult aren’t the worst two opening bowlers, they’re probably up there with the best: they swing it, they bowl full and in England early season when my feet weren’t moving that well I got caught out. But to say I was trying too hard? No, I wouldn’t agree with that. It obviously came to a head in that last innings when I got 7 off 45 balls or something and people made a few comments but from my point of view Cookie was going so well and we were still rollicking along at about six an over. I just thought, ‘I’m not in the best of form but it’s a great opportunity to spend some time at the crease’. I wasn’t thinking anything other than that when I got out. It looked a bit painful maybe, but so what? We’ve all had innings like that. I didn’t think it would be scrutinised as much as it was, because I certainly wasn’t that worried about it. We were in a good place as a side, we’d won the series, and so I was obviously very disappointed to miss out when it came to the Ashes.
Why do you think you were dropped?
I think Joe Root was the coming man and I think the energy was for him to be the long-term replacement for Andrew Strauss. It was just a case of seeing how long I could keep him out. I thought I’d made a good start to my international career and played really, really well for the last few years in county cricket. So why did I get left out? I’m not entirely sure – I think that’s pretty much the reason. What I’ve done this winter is work incredibly hard at trying to win my place back and make sure that 2014 is better than 2013, to try and give the selectors a really tough time in not selecting me.
There were suggestions that you were dropped because of your style of play, that England wanted to move Root up top to bring in another strokemaker in the middle order. Does that frustrate you given England’s sluggish scoring-rates since you were dropped?
If Test matches were going five days and ending in draws then I probably wouldn’t have a leg to stand on but the bottom line is that when Test matches are going three or four days it doesn’t matter how quickly or slowly you’re scoring. Test matches are there to go five days and I don’t think the fundamentals of top-order batting have changed. You’re there to have a look, get your eye in, see off the new ball, and go big when you get the chance. If I get a hundred I’d like to think that the team has really benefitted from that. I’ve never seen myself as a particularly slow batsman; I think conditions dictate that. If you take Chris Rogers as an example, look at the way he played in the last couple of Test matches this winter compared to when he first came into the Australian side. Why is that? Because he’s got the confidence of the team, he’s feeling secure in the side. It’s very easy to judge at an early stage but I’d like to think that I’ve proven myself to be versatile over the years. I know that I’ve got all the shots and I’ve got the ability – once you’ve got a few foundations then yes, you’ll see more. That’s the style of play that I’ve always believed in. I think batting at the top is a tough job and you can’t force and dictate terms. Yes, there’s the likes of David Warner and that’s great, but I feel that my game is more about assessing situations, assessing the wicket and trying to make a success of whatever’s out there.
Do you feel like you would have had the game to counter Australia’s quicks this winter?
Yeah, I do. It’s easy to sit on the couch making perceptions of what’s going on out there but what was frustrating was that I grew up as a young boy on pretty fast tracks in South Africa and I feel that I’ve built a reputation as someone who faces quick bowling as well as anyone. It was frustrating because I would have really enjoyed the fast, bouncy tracks of Australia. In saying that, Mitchell Johnson and what he brought to the series, it was high-quality fast bowling. Whether you’re a good player of fast bowling or not, it would have been an incredible challenge. But I must admit, and I’m not just saying this, it’s something that I really would have revelled in, facing that sort of situation. Quick, short-pitched bowling is something I feel I deal with quite well.
Is it safe to assume that the picture you tweeted of you playing a textbook backward defensive shot the day after Johnson rolled England at Brisbane wasn’t just a coincidence?
That might have been a bit silly but when Jonathan Trott went home, and given all the success I’ve had batting at No.3 for Somerset over the last four years, I was really hoping that there may have been an opportunity to be a like-for-like replacement. Sometimes you go unheard and people forget you and I just wanted to make sure I was very much thought of as someone who could come in and do a good job. That wasn’t the case but it didn’t change the fact that I worked incredibly hard back in England at my game, preparing as if there was going to be an opportunity.
Is there a part of you that thinks maybe it wasn’t such a bad tour to miss given the scoreline?
No, I don’t feel that way because those are the opportunities you get a few times in life to really stick your hand up, show some courage, show some fight, show some of the attributes that I feel that I very much stand for. And, as I’ve said, and as my coaches and people who know me well will tell you, quick and bouncy pitches are the conditions in which I would probably thrive best. It would have been an amazing experience to have had and I’m sure a lot of the players who have played over there will come back stronger for it.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about the ethos of the England dressing room. Did you find it to be a welcoming place?
I thought it was a really good dressing room. In every dressing room you’re going to have different individuals and I’ve always believed that in teams it isn’t necessarily about liking each other, but it’s about relying on each other. That’s what I believe team spirit is and as long as you’re all trying to achieve the same goal out on the field and are amicable enough in the changing room, then you’re getting everything you need. Some of the greatest teams in the world have not been the best of friends, but out in the middle they’ve relied on each other. There was a very good professional attitude, particularly winning that series in India, and of course it helps when you win and of course it helps when you’ve got some real match-winners in your team. So my experience of the dressing room was a good one.
If you do get back into that England dressing room, will you be disappointed not to have Kevin Pietersen in there with you?
I like KP, I got on well with him and I always found him a positive influence on my cricket. In any team it’s sad when you get to the point where you’re losing one of your best players but every team will move on. In KP you’ve seen a fantastic player for England and he’s been an incredible asset to the team, there’s no doubt about it. But that decision’s been made, whether it’s right or wrong, and England need to rebuild now and I’d very much like to be a part of that process.
Do you feel like you know what you need to do to force your way back into the England side?
Yeah, very much so. I’d really like to use those experiences I’ve had in Test cricket and the runs I’ve scored over the last three years to set me up for an even better 2014. I’ve gone away and I’ve worked at some of the things I feel will help me become a better player. One is to continue building my world-class defence, to continue tightening that up and make it even better. But in addition to that I’ve really worked at some of the shots that have been very good to me. One is the pull shot: I’ve been trying to refine that and make it even more controlled. And also the back-foot punch – that’s something I’m really looking to enhance in my game and take into the new season. So I’m hoping that we all start afresh and I have as good an opportunity as anyone else if I start well. If I get the runs then hopefully I’ll be rewarded for that. It’s pretty clear from my point of view what I need to do: get my head down and bat the way that I know I can.