A Singular Man

Published: 2017
Pages: 50
Author: Francis, Bill
Publisher: The Cricket Publishing Company
Rating: 3.5 stars

A review from our man in Australia

A Singular Man is a biography of Bevan Congdon, the first man to captain New Zealand to a win over Australia.  It was perhaps apt that the understated and introvert Congdon was the one to succeed and not the more outgoing past captains such as Tom Lowry or John Reid. Apt since New Zealand cricket in the 60s and 70s was also the clear introvert when compared to Ian Chappell’s hirsute ‘ugly Australians’.

Bevan Congdon fell into that unglamorous period of New Zealand cricket. Just after the retirement of legends such as Reid and Bert Sutcliffe and before the successful teams of the 1980s. This era is surprisingly neglected as it was the period where New Zealand not only first defeated Australia but also achieved their first win over England after 48 attempts.

In A Singular Man, author Bill Francis, follows the traditional biographical format starting with Congdon’s formative years and rise through the cricketing ranks. The book flows and Francis is able to convey more of his subject’s personality in just 50 pages than some modern Australian cricketing biographers struggle to achieve in 700+ pages.

Congdon presents as a shy man who does not mix readily. It appears some took this standoffishness as aloofness or even pomposity. His personality when combined with his high demands as a captain, contemporaries say it was not advisable to drop a catch off Congdon’s bowling, made him not everyone’s cup of tea.

Those who knew Congdon well, report him as a loyal friend with an understated sense of humour. After reading A Singular Man, Congdon presents as a dedicated cricketer who led from the front. Mainly as a batsmen, but he could also take important wickets and was a fine fieldsman.

Congdon must have been one of those typical bowlers that New Zealand produce so frequently, like Chris Harris, who look innocuous but have a golden arm. Francis notes that it was unlucky for Congdon that he finished his career just before ODIs really emerged as he had the all-round game to be a success. Unfortunately due to personal commitments he did not accept a place in the Kiwi side for the inaugural World Cup played in England in 1975.

Congdon appears to have been one of those annoying people with unlimited energy. He played a number of sports, worked fulltime, played in a band and still had time to undertake home handyman projects after work. Congdon would continue to hammer, saw and cut until the neighbours demanded a cessation at 10pm.

So it was hard to read that the 80 year old Congdon is now in poor health and is confined to a hospital bed. Fortunately he has regular visitors from his family and old cricketing comrades.  All cricket fans will hope Congdon can use those great reserves of concentration and fight that he demonstrated in his most famous innings in England in 1973 to beat his current illness.

The title for this little book comes from The Cricketing Publishing Founder – Ronald Cardwell and after you finish A Singular Man, you will think it the perfect designate. As with all this publishers books it is beautifully produced with plenty of illustrations. Add the quality writing of Bill Francis and this is a book that should be read by all cricket lovers.

….. and one from our English correspondent

In terms of confirming the impression I always had of Bevan Congdon, one of my favourite New Zealand cricketers, Bill Francis could have restricted his book to just his first sentence; His face could have been carved from a boulder out of the Motueka River.

My fondness for ‘Congo’ is based on one match, the first Test of New Zealand’s tour of England in 1973. Let us make no bones about it. Back then New Zealand were most definitely minnows. It was still less than 20 years since England had once shot them out for 26 in their own back yard, and they had never in my lifetime suggested they might have what it takes to beat England.

Nonetheless as a fan of the underdog I was keen to see the New Zealanders do well, and in restricting England to 250 they certainly exceeded expectations. Normal service was quickly resumed however as Congo’s men could only muster 97 in reply. England’s second innings scorecard was something that, as a schoolboy, fascinated me. Tony Greig scored 139, and Dennis Amiss 138. The next highest contribution was an unbeaten 10 from number ten Geoff Arnold, the double figure score rather spoiling what remains one of the strangest looking scorecards I have seen.

There is a superb photograph of Congo on the dust jacket of A Singular Man. It is taken during that match at Trent Bridge and shows our hero walking out to the middle, bat tucked under his arm and his hands putting his gloves on. There is nothing remarkable about that, until you look at the expression on Congo’s face, and see exactly what Francis means by that opening sentence.

By my reckoning Congo walked out to bat on five occasions in that match, and he would have looked much the same each time, but I fancy this shot was taken when he walked out at 16-1 with his side already in trouble as they set out in pursuit of an impossible 479 for victory. I say that because as well as the concentration and determination etched on Congo’s face he looks distinctly pissed off.

It wasn’t long before he lost his partner, Glenn Turner, the man who by a distance was New Zealand’s best batsman, and before the close Congo’s cranium had an argument with a John Snow bumper, but he got through to the end of the day.

On that Monday Congo was simply magnificent. Had tiredness not claimed his wicket a quarter of an hour before the close for 176 the impossible might have been achieved – as it was the next day Vic Pollard, Ken Wadsworth and the tail took New Zealand to within 38. I have never forgotten that game even if the memory of the Lord’s Test that followed has begun to fade – after all Congo managed a mere 175 at the home of the game.

It was a delight to read this brief summary of Congo’s life and times, if tinged with sadness by the knowledge that the old warhorse is now confined to hospital and not enjoying the best of health. Above all however this is a reminder of happy times for Congo and those who played with and against him. It is superbly written and wonderfully illustrated. I have mentioned one image already, but there is a better one, on pages 22 and 23. Again it dates back to 1973, and shows Congo and England captain Ray Illingworth facing each other at the toss. Both are stood with hands on hips, leaning forward towards each other and smiling with genuine warmth. One cannot help but wonder what thoughts were at that moment going through the minds of two of the shrewdest captains ever to step out on to a cricket ground. They were, and this comment is delivered with real affection for both, a right pair of grumpy bastards, and I’m pretty sure what they were thinking would have been totally at odds with the impression they were trying to give.

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