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William Bock. Photo courtesy: Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

January 9, 1928. In what seemed like an otherwise innocuous match between Wellington and Otago at Basin Reserve, William Bock broke his own record, standing in a First-Class match on his 81st birthday and ending three days later. What was probably more astonishing was the fact that cricket was not what the versatile genius Bock was famous for. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the three antipodean summer days braved by the only octogenarian First-Class umpire in history.

[Note: The author is indebted to Robin Gwynn's Bock, William Rose, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography for information on William Bock's early days.]

 The genius who turned umpire

Thomas Bock and Mary Ann Cameron née Spencer were both deported to Hobart in Van Diemen’s Land (later Tasmania). They were both pardoned, and settled down in the new country. In Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Robert Gwynn mentions that Thomas Bock was a “notable engraver, lithographer and daguerreotypist, important for his paintings of Tasmanian Aborigines.”

Note: In case you are wondering what daguerreotype is, Merriam-Webster defines it as “an early photograph produced on a silver or a silver-covered copper plate.”

Alfred, Thomas’ son from his first marriage, joined the family trade. William, born in 1847, worked as Alfred’s apprentice for two and a half years. Then, unable to find employment, he set sail on Gothenburg for the other side of Tasman Sea.

He was 21 at this stage. He reached New Zealand in the bitter cold of May, and took up employment with James Hughes. He also played cricket, though little is known of his performances. He took two wickets in a match for Wellington against Nelson in 1870, but that was about it.

He returned to Hobart six years later to marry his fiancée Rebecca Finlay, but went back to New Zealand, and worked as Manager of Lithography and Printing Department at Lyon and Blair Printers in Wellington.

Trivia: Lyon and Blair were sold to Whitcombe & Tombs in 1894. Whitcombe & Tombs merged with Coulls Somerville Wilkie in 1971 to form Whitcoulls, one of the largest bookstores in the country.

In 1878 he went back to James Hughes before launching his own business as engraver and lithographic printer. To quote Gwynn, “in the 1870s he was responsible for the design and preparation of the dies for the first fiscal and postage stamps to be produced wholly within the colony.”

But the achievements of this multi-faceted personality did not stop at that. He was also a medallist and an illustrator. He designed medals and certificates for New Zealand Industrial Exhibition; supervised the first full New Zealand book in chromolithography; created medals for the 1901 royal visit; engraved the New Zealand International Exhibition Set; and created jubilee addresses for Queen Victoria. He went on to become a Vice-President of Master Printers’ Association.

Somewhere down the line he acquired the middle name Rose, though it is not very clear when or why he did this.

The man in white coats

Amidst all that was cricket. By the time cricket became a serious sport in New Zealand, Bock was past his prime. Despite being a quality singer and ace stage performer, and even artillery volunteer, Bock never denounced cricket (how did he find time?).

Bock was 61 when he first stood umpire in a First-Class match, between Wellington and Hawke’s Bay. He officiated in eight First-Class matches, all of them at Basin Reserve, including a solitary Plunket Shield match, in 1923-24 (he was 76 at this stage).

The highlight of his umpiring career was, of course, the contest between Wellington and the touring Australians in 1913-14. The visitors boasted of Victor Trumper, Warwick Armstrong, Monty Noble, Arthur Mailey, Herbie Collins, and Vernon Ransford.

Wellington scored 201 and restricted the mighty Australians to 124. Tom Southall, their left-arm spinner, took 5 for 34, including Trumper and Armstrong for ducks. Unfortunately, Armstrong (7 for 17) bowled them out for 71, and the tourists won by 7 wickets.

Bock stood in a match between Wellington and Auckland a day after his 80th birthday, but he was far from over. When Wellington took on Otago on his 81st birthday (was this a coincidence?), he walked out in white coat with Walter Page, born a year after Bock got married.

Note: When Bock officiated at 80 years 1 day, he had already broken the record of James Laing, who was 79 years 297 days when he last stood in a First-Class match.

The match was a high-scoring encounter, and featured a few Test cricketers. Playing for Wellington were Ted Badcock, who would feature in New Zealand’s first ever Test, and Herb McGirr, who would play their third. Otago’s Laurie Eastman, on the other hand, had a 19-season long tenure for Essex.

The match was a high-scoring contest, where Wellington scored 363 and 413, and bowled out Otago for 269 and 344. The highlight of the match was a valiant all-round performance by Otago captain Arthur Alloo (3 for 86, 58, 4 for 107, and 90).

There were another incident worth a mention. Eastman broke down after sending down 5 overs in the Wellington first innings and did not take further part in the match. After the first innings of both sides got over, the umpires allowed Otago a full replacement; they drafted in Ernest Wilson for Eastman. It did not help, because Wilson did not bowl, batted at eleven, scored an unbeaten 8, and never played again.

The other was a fitting honour the organisers had ready for the man. As Peter Bidwell has mentioned in his chronicle on Wellington umpires, he “received a handsome cake”, for it was his birthday.

When the umpires walked back after the match, Bock was three days past his 81st birthday. BR Nagaraja Rao threatened to emulate Bock in the early 1990s, but he was ten days short of his 80th birthday when he officiated the Tamil Nadu vs Kerala match in 1993-94.

Final days

Bock had lost his wife when he was 68, but that did not deter him. By then his son William Jr had become his partner. During his last days William Sr supervised the training of his grandson FR Bock.

William Rose Bock died on August 3, 1932. He was 85, and was survived by two sons, two daughters, and his grandchildren. He had witnessed New Zealand’s first ever Test.

Brief scores:

 Wellington 363 (Jack Lamason 53, Herb Lambert 79, Herb McGirr 60; Arthur Alloo 3 for 86, Alec Knight 3 for 62) and 413 (Herb Lambert 108, Bruce Massey 64, William Brice 69, Leonard Beard 60*; Arthur Alloo 4 for 107) beat Otago 269 (Arthur Alloo 58, Reginald Cherry 65, Arthur Galland 70; Bruce Massey 5 for 56) and 344 (Arthur Alloo 90, Arthur Galland 60; Ted Badcock 4 for 86) by 163 runs.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor at CricketCountry and CricLife. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)