Harry Owen Rock. Photo courtesy: Sun (Sydney)
Harry Owen Rock. Photo courtesy: Sun (Sydney)

A young man answers the patriotic call to arms and goes to war, joining the Australian Imperial Forces and is posted to the 3rd Brigade Artillery, sailing to the Western Front in September 1916, not yet 20 years of age, and loses some years of his youth, like thousands of others. He spends time and energy in extricating horses and horse-drawn artillery pieces from the cloying mud of the battlefields and strains his knee ligaments in the process. He takes his Bachelor of Medicine degree from the University of Sydney in 1926 along with Otto Nothling, of dubious fame. He also plays a little cricket.

Harry Owen Rock was born October 18, 1896 at Scone, New South Wales, the son of Cambridge University and Tasmania cricketer Claude Rock. He was coached by former New South Wales (NSW) cricketers Gerry Hazlitt and Mick Waddy.

This is what the Wisden had to say about him: “Slightly built, he was a tremendous driver and had a wonderful gift of placing the ball and a basic soundness of technique which enabled him, as an opening batsman, to score at a great pace without taking undue risks.”

The first mention of Owen Rock in the cricket archives is from the time he played for the New South Wales Colts team against the visiting MCC team of 1920-21, at Sydney. The Colts team fielded 12 men but could only score 84 in the first innings. The wicketkeeper, Reginald Gostelow, top-scored with 19, Rock contributing 5 runs. For the tourists, Abe Waddington took 8 for 33.

MCC put up a massive 702, Patsy Hendren scored 211, and ‘Young Jack’ Hearne made 144. Rock did not bat in the second innings of the drawn game, but learnt the value of substantial individual contributions to a team score.

Rock’s next match was for the Australian Universities versus the touring MCC team of 1922-23, in Melbourne. Opening the innings, and batting only once, he scored 35.

We learn from Gideon Haigh that Rock’s First-Class debut came somewhat fortuitously, in the absence of established stars of the NSW team, such as Herbie Collins, Charles Macartney, Warren Bardsley, John Scott, and Johnny Taylor. Even so, he was in august company in his very first First-Class match. He was just past his 28th year when it happened.

It was a ‘home’ match at Sydney against South Australia in 1924-25, billed as ‘timeless’. Tom Andrews took first strike. Rock opened the innings, and added 61 with Andrew Ratcliffe, who fell for 29. Rock and Andrew then shared a second-wicket partnership of 184 before Rock was dismissed for 127 (in 140 minutes with 14 fours) — his maiden First-Class century and the very first century to go up on the Sydney Cricket Ground scoreboard.

 Andrews contributed 99 runs and Alan Kippax (also 127, from 170 minutes with 13 fours) was the other centurion in a first-innings total of 510. Clarrie Grimmett, the wily old fox, picked up 5 for 137. South Australia replied with 248, skipper Vic Richardson, with an even 100 (136 minutes, 15 fours) and David Pritchard (71) combining for a third-wicket stand of 170. For the hosts, Jack Gregory took 7 for 88.

South Australia followed on and scored 314, the captain getting his second century of the match (125, in 184 minutes with 11 fours). In this innings, Grimmett opened batting but was dismissed for a duck. There was a third-wicket stand of 202 runs between the skipper and Pritchard (85). This time it was Arthur Mailey among the wickets, with 6 for 99. NSW scored 54 for 1 to win the game by 9 wickets. Rock remained not out on 27.

Rock performed even better in his second Sheffield Shield game, versus Victoria, also at Sydney, towards the end of January. Under wicketkeeper-captain Ratcliffe this time, NSW again won the toss and batted first, and batted, and batted, for all of 532 minutes and 148.1 eight-ball overs, scoring 614.

Rock and John Morgan opened the innings and put up a first-wicket stand of 202 before the latter fell for 87. Morgan (87) was out. The second wicket fell quickly before Rock (235 in 387 minutes, with 15 fours) and Kippax (212 not out in 371 minutes with 15 fours) put up a third-wicket stand of 268 runs. Albert Hartkopf picked up 5 for 121.

Not to be outdone, Victoria scored 502, with centuries from Arthur Liddicut (132 in 293 minutes, with 11 fours) and Carl Willis (100 in 149 minutes, with 11 fours). Bill Woodfull was run out for 81. John Scott took 5 for 121, one of seven bowlers used.

NSW were shot out for 152 in the second innings, only Rock (51) scoring anything of consequence. The wickets were shared around among four bowlers. Victoria won the match by 7 wickets, scoring 265 for 3, Woodfull scoring a century (120, in 272 minutes, with only 6 fours).

Rock’s next First-Class game was against Western Australia (WA, who were not admitted to the Sheffield Shield tournament at the time)) at Sydney, the following season. WA took first strike and were dismissed for 194. The curiously named Ernest Tweeddale took 4 for 36balls. NSW scored a small matter of 639. Captain Collins (86) and Rock (151) shared a first-wicket stand of 210. There were two other centurions, #3 Macartney (114), and #4, Kippax (118). The #5 batsman, Albert Scanes, scored 94.

WA managed 211 in response, to lose the match by an innings and 234 runs.

Rock’s third Sheffield Shield game was against Victoria at Melbourne in the last week of December, 1925. Victoria batted first and scored 413, wicketkeeper Hammy Love scoring 115. The main wicket-taker was Macartney, with 7 for 85.

NSW put up 705, with hundreds from Charles Kelleway (145, from #8) and wicketkeeper Bertie Oldfield (129, from #10), the two adding 226 for the ninth wicket. Rock contributed 81 runs to the total. For Victoria, Don Blackie took 4 for 153.

Victoria were dismissed for 130 in the second innings, NSW winning the game by an innings and 162 runs.

Rock’s last First-Class game was a Sheffield Shield encounter against Victoria at Sydney, in the end of January 1926, billed as a ‘timeless’ game. Victoria batted first, scoring 290, Bill Ponsford top scoring with 79.

NSW replied with 708, with centuries from captain Collins (143) at the top of the order and Kippax (271 not out). Rock batted at #7, scoring 39. Victoria scored 322, Ponsford (138) and Woodfull (126) scoring centuries. For NSW, Sam Everett took 5 for 91. NSW won by an innings and 96 runs.

In between, Rock had played one more match, a sort of Test Trial, for The Rest, against an Australian XI, scoring 12 (perishing to an outstanding out-swinger from Gregory) and 35, and not doing full justice to his undoubted talent.

A persistent leg injury, picked up in his War days when he was forced to drag those heavy, ancient firearms through mud and song, did not do help Rock’s cause.

When all the statistics of Owen Rock’s short First-Class career were added up, he was found to have scored 560 runs from his 4 Sheffield Shield games at an average of 112. Only two other players have averaged over 100 in their Sheffield Shield careers, and both are legends of the sport.

100+ averages in Sheffield Shield

M

R

Ave

100s

Owen Rock

4

560

112.00

2

Don Bradman

62

8,926

110.20

20

Barry Richards

8

1,145

104.09

4

So where do these figures place Owen Rock in the pantheon of the greats? Statisticians will argue that the sample size of his scores in Sheffield Shield cricket is too small to form a reasonable comparison, and they may well be correct, but there is no denying the fact that Rock had proved his batting credentials in no uncertain manner given the limited opportunities he had.

Having qualified in Medicine in 1926, Rock took up a position as a Doctor at Newcastle, and his medical practice keeping him very busy, played no more cricket, which was a great pity in many ways. In later years Wisden remarked that but for this career decision, “he must surely have ranked among the greats”.

Dr Harry Owen Rock passed away on March 9, 1978 at Manly, in Sydney, aged 81 years 142 days.

(Pradip Dhole is a retired medical practitioner with a life-long interest in cricket history and statistics)