Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Deserving Congdon story in print

Bevan Congdon has a special place in New Zealand cricket history as the common denominator through the age of advancement from Saturday afternoon amateurs to a more professional, in outlook at least, unit.

From the time he was first selected in the summer of 1964-65 through until his last tour of England in 1978, Congdon was the one player to have provided the bridge from the construction phase to the near completion of the task of New Zealand's climb into the top bracket of world sides.

Some like John Reid and Bert Sutcliffe, who provided major contributions, ended their time after the tour of India, Pakistan and England in 1965. Others like Barry Sinclair, Graham Dowling, Gary Bartlett, Dick Motz and Jack Alabaster got halfway through the process while others like Bruce Taylor, Bob Cunis and Richard Collinge had phases of being in and out of the side with availabilities and injuries.

Then the likes of Glenn Turner, Hedley Howarth, Ken Wadsworth and Dayle Hadlee came in for the second half of the journey with Richard Hadlee an even later addition to the cause.

But sailing through it all was Congdon, growing in stature and confidence, playing within his limits, and occasionally extending them as on the 1973 tour of England with his successive Test centuries.

Those formative days cannot be under-stated. Years of being an afterthought on the end of tours of Australia by English and West Indian teams meant New Zealand's best players were starved by comparison to other countries.

There were the days in the  late 1950s and 1960s when four home series were played against Australian B sides with a tour to Australia to play state sides in 1967. There were also the first involvement in limited overs competitions in the fledgling Australian state competition where New Zealand's rising stature became apparent.

Congdon proved an essential part in New Zealand acquiring the knowledge that would stand them in such good stead within a generation.

It took time but eventually things came together for him. There was the run flow going off the chart in the West Indies on the benign pitches that failed to produce a result in five Tests in 1972 and there was the captaincy of the side in the first Test victory over Australia at Lancaster Park in 1974. The captaincy had been moved on to Mark Burgess by 1978 but Congdon was there when victory was achieved over England for the first time in Wellington at the old Basin Reserve.

His bowling was often under-appreciated but it grew in stature during his career and two wickets for 14 at the end of England's first innings helped ensure that while New Zealand suffered a collapse, they still had enough runs in the bank to apply pressure for win.

Undemonstrative, in public at least, but renowned for a certain trait of grittiness, being the subject of an autobiography was never really in the Congdon make-up. Although there could have been plenty of stimulus had he so chosen.

R.T. Brittenden, who saw all of Congdon's career, wrote of him in 'The Finest Years', "When he came into first-class cricket, it was as a boldly-attacking batsman, with a firm liking for the cut and the pull. He did well enough to win test status in four years. But he became outstandingly good only because of his firm resolve to improve. It was not enough to make a good score now and then. He is a perfectionist."

No bad thing that through an era when being a perfectionist wasn't always the most endearing characteristic of those who didn't understand the requirements along the road to success.

He still sits within the top 10 run scorers for New Zealand in Tests, in ninth on 3448, one behind Kane Williamson and one ahead of John R. Reid. That's the sort of quality we're talking with seven Test centuries and an average of 32.22 which says something of the tough times in the early stages of his 62-Test career.

His contribution has not been overlooked and Bill Francis has written an extended essay making a small book of Congdon's career looking at what contributed to his emergence from what we now know as the Tasman region of New Zealand and what sustained him through a distinguished playing career.

'A Singular Man' has been published by The Cricketers' Trust, which has been established by the professional players of the day and the New Zealand Cricket Players' Association, with the support of boutique cricket publisher Ron Cardwell in the publication.

It is a worthy addition to a growing resource which acknowledges the era which was the necessary forerunner to New Zealand's emergence on the world scene in the 1980s, especially, and beyond.

A Singular Man by Bill Francis. Published by The Cricketers' Trust.

It's not all about the glory days

Rugby publishing is full of the success stories of the game, all those golden contributors to memories of deeds past.

Given the nature of All Blacks' success there are any number of examples over the past 50 years.

Stephen Donald's story 'Beaver' is a little different and while it has as its obvious high point the penalty goal that proved to be the match-winner in the 2011 Rugby World Cup final, a story subsequently retold in a television docu-drama, there is plenty on the down moments in top sport.

Probably no New Zealand sportsman since Mark Richardson's tell-all 'Thinking Negatively' about the psychological demands of top cricket has talked so frankly about the less attractive side of sport.

In Donald's case it was the loss to Australia in Hong Kong in 2010.

The story is well-known. Donald missed a 76th minute shot at goal that would have put the lead out to eight points. Then a turnover ball needed to be kicked to touch to save the game. Donald kicked, the ball didn't go out, Australia ran it back and James O'Connor scored.

Donald took the loss hard, and he became a target for the all-knowing talkback radio brigade who enjoyed the luxury of anonymity in making him their scapegoat.

The rest of the tour became arduous for Donald, and it got worse when returning to New Zealand and into the start of the next Super Rugby season, which happened to be the prelude to the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. The public slanging was everywhere.

With Aaron Cruden and Colin Slade emerging as first five-eighths of ability, the result was that Donald slipped to fourth on the list with Dan Carter sitting on top.

It is easy to think in these days of triumph for the All Blacks on the international scene that all is rosy and life is continually good for the participants. But these are humans who are involved and not everyone reacts to pressure of performance in the same way.

Donald describes how tough it was and it is clear that he didn't help himself in some regards on the social side and it was hardly surprising that when the World Cup started without his involvement that he wanted nothing to do with it.

What happened then as Carter, Slade and Cruden all succumbed to injuries, Cruden going off before half-time in the final, and Donald came from his whitebait stand onto the centrestage at Eden Park is part of folklore.

That was a triumph of the will after all the frustrations, but there was more to come. Again, there are lessons to be had for young players heading off overseas to pursue their rugby careers. Donald clearly had second thoughts about travelling to British club Bath and that carried through to his involvement.

His words are salutary: "I struggled with almost every aspect of Premiership life. I struggled with the mentality that playing rugby was a job, not a pleasure. I struggled with coaches who wanted me to kick every time we found ourselves in our own half. I struggled with the ruthlessness of club administrators, and the revolving door for coaches and for players.

"I struggled with newspaper headlines that claimed I had been told by the CEO to lift my game, when no such conversation had taken place. Yeah, I most assuredly struggled with that. I struggled with games on Christmas Eve and New Year's Day, and with kicking coaches who tried to change my technique…Most of all thought I struggled with my own discipline. Bath had its own way of doing things and, having accepted their offer to play their, I should have been more professional in how I approached that time. I tried to buy into it all, I really did, but to play well for a team, you have to believe in that team. There was no culture for me to invest in. Rightly or wrongly, that's how I felt almost the entire time I was there."

Food for thought if ever there was.

Rehabilitation has been achieved. Who will forget his contribution to the Chiefs' win over woeful Wales in 2016? But he has continued with the franchise and with Counties Manukau.

For all that may yet happen in his career, telling his story may be one of the most useful aspects of it, and certainly making clear some of the pitfalls that can befall players.

'Beaver' by Stephen Donald with Scotty Stevenson. Published by Upstart Press