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Remembering Bevan Congdon

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In the beginning there were England and Australia, and by the time I had become a cricket lover the West Indies were also a fine side. The South Africans were right up there as well, and I couldn’t understand at the time why their great team wasn’t allowed to tour England in 1970. By the time I did see their successors play twenty years later Test cricket was a proper meritocracy and the minnows of my childhood, Pakistan, India and New Zealand, had all had their days in the sun.

Things changed in 1971. India, whose record in England before that summer had been truly awful, enjoyed enough good fortune for their much improved performances to bring them their first Test and series win on English soil. Earlier in the summer a decent Pakistan side would, with a little more luck, have emulated them. So when New Zealand arrived in 1973 for the first half of the summer I and many others hoped that the routine drubbings of the past would be consigned to memory and the Kiwis would take some inspiration from the men from the sub-continent and see that England could be beaten.

By the end of the tour many England supporters, especially youngsters like me who always fancied the underdog, were disappointed England had managed to win. But they were nearly humbled by the men from the Shaky Isles whose skipper, Bevan Congdon, made a huge impression on all of us.

In those days for me age was just a number, and the fact that Congdon was already 35 meant nothing, but he was of course much closer to the end of his career than the beginning. He was, as one of the most obvious selections ever, named as one of Wisden’s Five Cricketers of the Year for its 1974 edition and I learned a bit more about him then. He came from a place called Motueka on South Island. Then, but not I believe now, an area that’s main claim to fame was for tobacco growing. According to Wisden at 16 Congdon almost abandoned cricket for tennis, and I am also given to understand he was a talented trumpeter who played in a band with five older brothers. Given the way family dynasties appear in New Zealand cricket I have always found it odd he was the only one of the six ever to play First Class cricket.

Wisden’s editor suggested that it was a lack of opportunity on the cricket field that caused Congdon’s head to be turned in the direction of the tennis court, but if it was he did at least stick at his cricket and finally, when almost 23, he came to the attention of the Central Districts selectors in December 1960. Having watched him so carefully in 1973 I was surprised to learn that in his early days Congdon was a bit of a dasher, especially with hooks and pulls, and that at that time he barely turned his arm over at all.

It was not until 1964/65 Congdon that scored his first century, and he had the good sense to do it in an innings victory against Wellington, who were skippered by New Zealand legend and Test captain John Reid. He maintained a degree of consistency after that and found a way into the side for the first Test against Pakistan. It was a place he retained for each of the three Tests. Congdon got to 42 twice, and made a start in each of his six innings. All three matches were drawn, but the series was keenly contested and had the Tests been scheduled to be of five days duration rather than four there would certainly have been three results, and they all might have gone either way.

By the third Test Congdon was opening the batting, and it was in that role he was selected for the tours of India, Pakistan and England that were to follow, keeping the New Zealanders away from home for more than six months. It was hoped the time spent together playing constant cricket and the competitive nature of three Test series in a short period would harden the New Zealanders and bring out the best in them. A glance at the scorecards, particularly the feeble performances in England, would suggest it was less than successful in that aim, although it must have had some benefits as the same exercise was carried out five years later.

For Congdon the tours were not a success. He did not play well in India and Pakistan and was selected for only four of the seven Tests, although in the final Test in Pakistan he did at least, on recall, manage his first Test half-century, 57. More at home in England Congdon produced the innings of the tour for New Zealand, 136 against an MCC attack led by John Snow and David Brown. He went to his century with a straight six, and scored an unbeaten 56 in the second innings as well. To make his first appearance at Lord’s truly a match to remember he also, with what was still only occasional right arm medium pace, took 3-29 in the MCC first innings, his career best to that date.

Back home in 1965/66 England played three Tests in New Zealand after their Ashes campaign. Congdon used the first to score his maiden Test century and later added a half century as, in stark contrast to 1965, the New Zealanders managed to draw all three encounters. Home series followed against India and West Indies. India beat their hosts 3-1, but in the second Test Congdon at least tasted victory for the first time. The modest fourth innings target was 88, but New Zealand had a major wobble along the way and without Congdon’s unbeaten 61 they might well have choked. Congdon also contributed a half century to a win over the men from the Caribbean, and innings of 42 and 43 in the drawn third Test that allowed the New Zealanders to hang on for a 1-1 series draw.

In 1969 Congdon and New Zealand had their second triple tour of England, India and Pakistan. For Congdon, now 31, it was a disappointing trip. He played in all but two of the matches on the tour but was the least successful of the side’s specialist batsmen averaging just 25.62 on the tour as a whole. He was a little more successful in the Tests but the results were disappointing as the New Zealanders lost heavily twice and were clearly second best in the drawn second Test. On the sub-continent the they drew with India and beat the Pakistanis, so it was a successful time for the team. In India Congdon was second in the Test averages, albeit on just 29.00, but his form collapsed completely in Pakistan and he contributed little to the historic series victory, his country’s first ever. There was however one interesting development. Spotting an opportunity to increase his value to his side Congdon the regular bowler began to emerge. In his first 23 Tests he had taken just five wickets. In the next thirty he was to take 52.

Graham Dowling was New Zealand skipper at this point, but he broke a finger in Australia in December of 1969, so when an Australian B side made a return visit across the Tasman in February and March of 1970 Congdon was made captain. The three representative matches were all drawn, the hosts matching a strong Australian side blow for blow. Congdon’s contributions were 59, 83, 5, and 128 – captaincy clearly suited him, and his bowling added value to those scores – he was New Zealand’s second best bowler, five of his six wickets being specialist batsmen.

Dowling was back to lead New Zealand against Ray Illingworth’s England in 1970/71, albeit minus a finger that had been so badly damaged it needed amputation. He was still in post the following year when New Zealand visited the Caribbean for a full five Test series which was to see Congdon step out of the shadows and into the limelight. The first Test, like the other four, was drawn, and Congdon made a quiet start. It was the next match where things changed. He warmed up with a century against Trinidad before an unbeaten 166 followed by 82 in the second Test showed an ability to take advantage of opportunities. The first innings knock was remarkable. At one point the visitors were 99-6 and well on their way to defeat. But Lawrence Rowe dropped Congdon at slip on 22. Mike Findlay then missed a straightforward stumping on 27 before poor Rowe missed him again on 29 and then a third time on 33. After those let-offs the phlegmatic Congdon was superb and with three wickets in the West Indies first innings New Zealand were well on top when time ran out.

The tour moved on to Barbados where, skipper Dowling nursing a back injury, Congdon led his country for the first time in an official Test. Bruce Taylor bowled superbly as the home side were skittled for 133 and Congdon’s 126 was the rock around which a reply of 422 was put together. A victory opportunity had opened up, but Congdon ran out of ideas, three catches going down, and West Indies remorselessly piling up 564-8 to shut out any possibility of a result. At the end of the Tests it was announced that Dowling would be going home and the captaincy would be staying with Congdon. An unnamed teammate’s comment was when Congo retires he certainly won’t get a job in the diplomatic service.

Weather spoiled the fourth Test, but Glen Turner and Terry Jarvis had opened up with a record 387 to leave the visitors in an impregnable position. The fifth Test was a moral victory for West Indies but no one could dispute that New Zealand deserved to hang on to square the series. Congdon had averaged 88.50 with the bat, and 13 wickets at 34.30 made him second only to Taylor in the bowling list.

A disappointing home defeat to Pakistan rather spoiled Congdon’s record but the side he pitched up with in England in 1973 contained some fine players, most notably Glen Turner who performed the rare feat of scoring 1,000 runs by the end of May. It was June however before the Tests began and in the first at Trent Bridge Turner looked as weak as the rest of the new Zealanders as they crashed to 97 all out in their first innings on a blameless pitch before being left 14 hours in which to survive or score 479 in order to avoid defeat. With Turner’s form gone he and John Parker were back in the pavilion with just 16 on the board and shortly afterwards Congdon was hit on the cheek by a short one from Snow. It was a nasty blow but a by now very grumpy Congdon told the twelfth man to disappear in no uncertain terms, and managed to hold position until the close, by which time New Zealand were 56-2.

If only Congdon had managed to bat all day on the Monday it would doubtless have been different. As it was he finally capitulated a few minutes before the close for 176. He appeared to simply miss a straight one from Geoff Arnold, his intense day’s concentration being the cause of a momentary but fatal lapse. He had added a few with Brian Hastings and Mark Burgess, but the main partnership had been with lay preacher Vic Pollard, and the pair had added 177 for the fifth wicket. Most of the gathered press had checked out of their hotels in readiness for the routine victory they had predicted, and no doubt making them eat their words was a cause of much satisfaction to Congdon. Play was to resume on the final day with New Zealand a relatively modest 162 behind, still with five wickets to fall.

I make no apology for admitting that, at 13, I wanted Pollard to shepherd the New Zealand tail to their target. I can’t recall now whether it was half term, or I had an early dose of man flu and was in no state to go to school, but that day I was transfixed in front of the television. I watched every delivery of the brave attempt the New Zealanders made to get over the line, which is more than Congdon did – legend has it he spent much of the time reading a CS Forester novel. New Zealand lost by 39 in the end.

Those who thought the excitement for the series was over were proved wrong at Lord’s when, in reply to a modest 253, New Zealand piled up 550. Congdon was slightly less successful than at Trent Bridge with a mere 175, and with Pollard and Burgess each scoring 105 another abject failure by New Zealand’s openers did not matter. On a still good pitch England did rather better second time round and batted out the game. The turning point came when Arnold was given a life by Wadsworth. Had the popular ‘keeper held on there would have been nine wickets down with England 70 on and two hours left.

Two such sterling performances gave great cause for optimism ahead of the final Test, but this time there was to be no repeat and, rather tamely by an innings and one run, the visitors lost the match to go down 2-0. In their second innings Turner finally showed what he could do but, sadly, he was alone. The tour remains, for this writer at least, the most memorable New Zealand visit there has been and the manager’s report on Congdon read that he set a very high standard in his own performances both on and off the field. His batsmanship was of top standard and, on many occasions, it was the pillar on which large totals were built. On several occasions, when the bowling lacked penetration, he redeemed the situation with his own clever and varied bowling. At times, his captaincy may have appeared to lack positive direction, but it should be realised that the attack did not always have the necessary attacking qualities either in pace or spin. Off the field he made a first-class impression in press conferences, interviews and speeches.

Despite being 35 Congdon still had another 19 Tests to play before, at 40, he ended his career under the captaincy of Mark Burgess on the disappointing 1978 tour of England. The highlight came in 1973/74 when, after just a solitary Test just after the Second World War, the Australians finally deigned to play their neighbours in home and away series that season. In Australia the home side enjoyed two comfortable wins, although they had by far the worse of a draw in the second Test and had the ever cautious Congdon declared a little earlier New Zealand might have secured their first win over Australia slightly earlier than they did. As it was that had to wait for the return series in New Zealand. In the first Test a Congdon century helped secure a comfortable draw before the historic win came at Lancaster Park. The hero with the bat was undoubtedly Turner with twin centuries. For Congdon there were innings of just 8 and 2, but he took 3-33 in Australia’s first innings, including the vital scalp of Greg Chappell.

Business commitments prevented Congdon captaining New Zealand in the 1975 World Cup, and the baton passed to Turner and did not return to Congdon who was content to play out his career back in the ranks. There was one more Test century, and an extremely valuable one, against Australia in February 1977. New Zealand were left with a day to survive, and did so with two wickets to fall largely as a result of an unbeaten five hour 107 from Congdon. A year later he was playing in the match that saw New Zealand beat England for the first time. He contributed 44 and 0, and in the England first innings he had the impressive figures of 17.4-11-14-2.

Attitudes towards Congdon amongst his teammates varied, seemingly with age being a major factor. John Wright, whose first five Tests were played in the company of the 40 year old Congdon, rated him as one of New Zealand’s really great players, and had always admired his attitude. Wright was 24 when he toured England in 1978, so the difference in age was significant and was the more so with 18 year old seamer Brendon Bracewell. The youngest member of that particular New Zealand cricketing brotherhood never established any sort of rapport with Congdon.

It might have been expected that Glen Turner, the only full time professional cricketer who played for New Zealand in Congdon’s era, would have been content with Congdon’s hard bitten attitude towards the game, but it seems not. Turner didn’t mind the uncompromising approach to playing cricket, but was less impressed with his grumpiness and total unacceptance of failure irrespective of circumstance. He was particularly critical of Congdon’s captaincy in 1973 and the way he bowled his front line bowlers into the ground. In addition he was also singularly unimpressed with the skipper’s handling of a young slow left armer, Eric Gillott, who he clearly didn’t rate.

One of Turner’s complaints was that it seemed to be to him to whom others in the party turned to moan about their captain, something the single minded Turner later wrote that he could have done without. He reported that there were many gripes about field placings, and from the bowlers who felt aggrieved that Congdon would often bowl himself at the tail, and would generally choose the better end to bowl from. That said Turner expressed no personal opinions on the complaints he received which, given he was in as good a position as anyone to make a judgment is a pity.

The greatest New Zealand cricketer of them all, Sir Richard Hadlee, made his international debut under Congdon and was not a fan, describing him as a dour and ruthless leader without much imagination who never impressed me. He also considered him a negative thinker and very demanding. Hadlee felt the 1973 series should have been won, and blamed Congdon’s defensive captaincy, writing that he was not prepared to be assertive and make things happen.

From outside the team the New Zealand broadcaster Alan Richards echoed some of the players’ thoughts after 1973; One advantage enjoyed by England was Illingworth’s superiority to Congdon as a tactician – splendid individual cricketer that he is, and likeable personality that he possesses, Congdon lacks the flair for adventure or attack which New Zealand seems to need in order to emerge completely from the slight inferiority complex which has plagued our team for so long.

It seems clear that man-management was not something Congdon always excelled at, and perhaps he was not the greatest tactician in the game either. But the fact remains that during his time at the helm of the New Zealand Test side something changed forever, and for the better. Those of us who saw it will never forget that epic encounter at Trent Bridge back in the summer of 1973, and Bevan Congdon was undoubtedly the architect of that.

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