Solid as a rock
Odd Men In - a title shamelessly borrowed from AA Thomson's fantastic book - concerns cricketers who have caught my attention over the years in different ways - personally, historically, technically, stylistically - and about whom I have never previously found a pretext to write
In the statistics of Australian cricket, Dr Harry Owen Rock is a jutting outcrop, with a first-class average of 94.75 - just a chip shy of Bradman's 95.14. Indeed, his Sheffield Shield average of 112 gives him a slight edge on the Don - something John Howard would now probably regard as un-Australian.
The record is, of course, a trick of the mathematical light, for Rock's 758 runs were gathered in half a dozen games. The 1920s, too, saw runs being made in industrial quantities around the world, ahead of their full-scale mass production in the 1930s. But the arithmetic progression of Rock's scores has an undeniable authority: 127, 27 not out, 235, 51, 151, 12, 35, 81 and 39. Even Wisden thought he `must surely have ranked among the great' had his career not been truncated by the call of medicine, and 30 years as a general practitioner in Newcastle.
Rock, son of a Cambridge cricket blue, was a prodigious junior athlete at King's School, where he was coached by Mick Waddy and Gerry Hazlitt. He was from the first a fine driver with a long reach whose slight build belied his power, and one of only three King's players to pass 1000 in season. War service with 3rd Brigade Artillery not only cost him run-bearing years, but altered his style. After damaging ligaments in his knees while trying to shift horse-drawn artillery pieces bogged in the mud, he refashioned his stance on upright lines, holding the bat raised. It made him a quaint sight at the crease - opponents were often unsure if he was quite ready to take strike. But the impression did not last. When he began playing cricket for Sydney University while undertaking medical studies, stiff legs became more of a problem for bowlers.
|After damaging ligaments in his knees while trying to shift horse-drawn artillery pieces bogged in the mud, he refashioned his stance on upright lines, holding the bat raised|
To infiltrate the powerful New South Wales team of the team required luck and patience. Rock had to wait until November 1924, when Collins, Macartney, Bardsley, Taylor and Scott were all unavailable; as it was, the team still featured past and future internationals Kippax, Oldfield, Andrews and Mailey. In any event, Rock lost nothing by comparison with any of this exalted company, his debut hundred requiring just two hours and twenty minutes. The Referee's venerable Corbett Davis deemed his fourteen fours `as classic as anything seen this summer from any of the international batsmen' - a sample, incidentally, that included Ponsford, Ryder, Hobbs, Sutcliffe and Woolley.
Davis, then the game's most respected newspaper critic, was even more appreciative of Rock's six-and-a-half-hour sequel at the SCG against Victoria in January 1925: `H. O. Rock is a veritable stoic at the wickets. He takes his stand with ease, and has no semblance of movement or mannerism until he moves the bat to meet the ball. Then everything is done with mechanical accuracy that makes batting look an easy or effortless thing.' This was the highest possible praise, an anticipation of the kind of Fordist production logic that would be admired in `run machines' like Ponsford and Bradman.
Rock's career, however, was not a linear progression. The availability of the state's Test stars, and his own medical examinations, precluded further matches that season: he satisfied himself by topping the Sydney grade averages with 655 runs at 55. There seemed much to look forward to when he began the 1925-6 season with 151 in a helter-skelter session against Western Australia at the SCG, but he was dynamited out by Jack Gregory and stranded by Arthur Mailey when representing the Rest in a pre-Ashes tour trial game against Australia a fortnight later. There were no further opportunities. Rock went all the way to Adelaide to be twelfth man for New South Wales soon after; his remaining two first-class innings were at number seven, beginning at five for 291 and five for 465 respectively, and Australia sailed for England without him.
There may have been some pique involved in Rock's decision to renounce the game when he graduated as a doctor, rather than a Test cricketer, in 1926. Australian cricket had already featured its share of doctors: Tup Scott, John Barrett, Roy Minnett, Percy Charlton, Roley Pope and Claude Tozer. And in the mid-1920s, doctor and also dentists were surprisingly thick on ground in Sheffield Shield cricket: New South Wales had Eric Barbour, Queensland had Otto Nothling and Percy Hornibrook, Victoria Roy Park and Albert Hartkopf, South Australia Harry Fisher and Norman Williams.
Examples known to Rock also suggested that a professional career need not have cramped his cricket style. One of his King's School contemporaries, Dr Reg Bettington, was at that stage a star leg-break bowler for Oxford and Middlesex; one of his Sydney University comrades, Dr Jim Bogle, also scored a century on debut for New South Wales before moving onto medical practice in Port Douglas. And Rock's New South Wales contemporary Johnny Taylor was still a Test player despite the demands of his dentistry exams.
|Donald Bradman's first nine first-class innings not two years later yielded only 282 runs - barely a third as many as Rock's|
Perhaps, however, Rock had diagnosed in himself an irreversible medical condition: age. He turned 30 in October. This need not have been a handicap, except that Australia was coming to the end of the cricket Kondratieff that had begun with the AIF team of 1919, and was heavy with famous, decorated but declining players: Collins (37), Macartney (40), Bardsley (43), Mailey (40) and even, by that stage, Gregory (31).
Rock apparently queried captain Herbie Collins about his lack of opportunities and was informed that his knees had been held against him - there were concerns about his fielding. This was a little unkind - Rock had more than stood in for injured keepers in games - but was probably influenced by the decreasing mobility of the Australian Test team of the day.
Rock's example, then, reminds us that the establishment of a career needs more than just one's own excellence; the time must also be ripe. Donald Bradman's first nine first-class innings not two years later yielded only 282 runs - barely a third as many as Rock's - but his state place was never in jeopardy: by that stage, Australia had lost the Ashes, taking that senior playing generation with them. Rock had to be content with leaving an outcrop submerged by the tide of events, which re-emerged to engage the browsing eye only with that tide's withdrawal.
Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer