Harry Owen Rock – forgotten man of Australian cricket history

If a player ends his Sheffield Shield career with a batting average in excess of 100 and scores a century on debut against three other states, one would expect that player to be a household name. Instead Dr Harry Owen Rock remains one of those extraordinary players whose career is remembered only by cricketing historians and keen students of the game. What makes his career even more extraordinary is that he was dropped from matches because better-quality players were available!

Harry Owen Rock was born in Scone, New South Wales on the 18th of October 1896. His father, Claude William Rock, had been a Cambridge Blue, played for Warwickshire and then played three times for Tasmania between 1888-89 and 1892-93 after emigrating to Australia. Rock then moved to New South Wales in 1894.

Harry Rock moved to Sydney in his teens for an education, and boarded at the King’s School, Parramatta. Here he received coaching from former NSW players Gerry Hazlitt and Mick Waddy. When World War 1 broke out, Rock enlisted with the AIF [Australian Imperial Force] as a member of a field artillery unit, sailing to the Western Front in September 1916 as a 19 year old, as this embarcation record shows.

HO Rock

Rock suffered leg injuries while serving, due to having to help drag guns through the thick mud that was such a feature of the battlefields on the Western Front.. These injuries would have a major impact on his batting style when he eventually started playing first-class cricket.

Upon returning to Sydney after World War 1, Rock enrolled at Sydney University, where he commenced studies for a doctor’s degree. From 1919-20 onwards, Rock also played for the Sydney University team in the Sydney first-grade cricket competition. Between 1920-21 and 1923-24, Rock scored over 500 runs each year for University in the Sydney competition, but was never chosen to represent New South Wales in first-class cricket. The closest he got to playing was to be the NSW 12th man for the Sheffield Shield match at the Adelaide Oval against South Australia in the opening match of the 1921-22 season. He substituted for a teammate in the field, and caught South Australian player LV Pellew off the bowling of OP Asher in the South Australian first innings.

Rock was finally chosen for NSW for the Sheffield Shield match against South Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground in November-December 1924. Regular NSW players Herbie Collins, Charlie Kelleway and Johnny Taylor were unavailable, and Rock was chosen to open the innings alongside AT Ratcliffe. Rock took his opportunity, scoring 127 in the first innings and 27 not out in the second innings. His 127 was scored in the relatively quick time of 140 minutes. Journalists writing for the various Sydney newspapers were impressed by Rock’s debut, at the relatively late age of 27. They commented on his upright, stiff stance (due to the injuries Rock suffered in World War 1), which meant that driving down the ground and cuts to either side of the pitch were his main scoring strokes.

Rock was chosen for NSW for the return match against South Australia at Adelaide, but declined the invitation to play. His next game was against Victoria, again at the Sydney Cricket Ground, in late January 1925. The 3rd Test Match between Australia and England at Melbourne had finished the day before, so the NSW members of the Australian team (Herbie Collins, Jack Gregory, Johnny Taylor, Tommy Andrews, Charlie Kelleway, Bill Oldfield and Arthur Mailey) were unable to get back to Sydney in time for the Victoria game. Rock once again was chosen to open the innings with

John Morgan, and once again justified his selection, scoring 235 in the first innings and 51 in the second innings. His double-century took 387 minutes and included 15 fours. Rock had a bit of luck, having catches dropped when he was 9, 100 and 201. Rock also took over the gloves as wicketkeeper on the last day of the match, after regular NSW wicketkeeper Andrew Ratcliffe received a couple of knocks to the body. This was an amazing match – NSW scored 614 in their first innings, but managed to lose by 7 wickets after collapsing in their 2nd innings.

Rock missed the next Sheffield Shield match against Victoria in Melbourne, as it started the day after the match at the Sydney Cricket Ground. The touring England team played NSW at Sydney in February 1925, but Rock was unavailable for that game due to University exams. He ended the 1924-25 first-class season with an aggregate of 440 runs at an amazing average of 146.66. Rock also topped the aggregates for the most runs scored in the Sydney grade cricket competition, with 656 runs for University at an average of 54.68.

1925-26 was going to be an important summer, as the Australian team was due to tour England in mid-1926. Rock did his chances of being selected no harm when he was chosen to play for NSW against Western Australia at Sydney in November 1925. Western Australia were not part of the Sheffield Shield competition, and instead went on an Eastern states “tour”, playing the other states. Opening once again with Herbie Collins, Rock scored 151 in just 125 minutes, including 19 fours.

In December 1925, a match was played at Sydney between an “Australian XI” and “The Rest” as a trial to help with the selection of the Australian team to tour England in 1926, with Rock chosen to represent “The Rest”. This match was crucial to Rock’s hopes of making that team, but for the first time in his first-class career, he failed to make a big score. He scored only 12 in first innings, and 35 runs in the second. According to newspaper reports, Rock was unlucky in the first innings to be bowled by an unplayable outswinger from all-rounder Jack Gregory – a delivery which more experienced players would have found difficult to defend.

Rock travelled to Adelaide with the NSW team for the match against South Australia in mid-December 1925, but on the morning of the match Rock was chosen as 12th man, and thus did not bat in the game. In Sydney there was widespread criticism of the selectors for choosing Rock as the 12th man. JC Davis in the “Referee” claimed Rock’s demotion to be:

“the most extraordinary case of the omission of a player from the New South Wales team for over 30 years. On the fast, true wickets of Australia, I consider no NSW batsman is superior to Rock. Rock is easily the finest cover driver in Australian cricket today.”

Rock played in the match against Victoria at Melbourne in late December 1925, after Sam Everett withdrew due to injuries suffered in the game against South Australia. Due to Herbie Collins and Warren Bardsley being available to open the batting, Rock batted at No. 7 for NSW, scoring 81. Rock missed the next game against South Australia at Sydney in mid-January 1926 due to University exams, but played against Victoria at Sydney in late January 1926. Once again he batted at No. 7, scoring 39. His aggregate of runs for the season was 318, with an average of 63.6.

At the end of the 1925-26 season, Rock had passed all of his medical exams at Sydney University and was now a qualified doctor. He now had to make a decision – follow his professional career, or follow his cricket career? Rock was not chosen in the Australian team to tour England in 1926, and he also realised that his only games for NSW occurred when other players were unavailable. He had also been told that his age (30) and leg injuries were reasons for him not being an automatic selection for NSW. He decided to retire from first-class cricket, and set up a medical practice in Newcastle, 160 kilometres north of Sydney, where he served the local community for over 30 years. He eventually retired and moved to the northern Sydney beachside suburb of Manly, where he died on the 9th of March 1978, aged 81 years old.

Rock may have retired prematurely. There was a changing of the guard in the NSW team after the 1925-26 season, with a couple of players who stood in Rock’s way of playing regularly retiring – Herbie Collins and Warren Bardsley. With both players being openers, Rock would surely have been a first-choice for NSW if he was still available. His obituary in the cricket publication “Wisden” said that “Rock could have been among the great” if he had continued his career.

Rock finished his first-class career with an aggregate of 758 runs at an average of 94.75, and a Sheffield Shield aggregate of 560 at an average of 112.00. Only two other players have averaged over 100 in their Sheffield Shield careers – the legendary Sir Donald Bradman (110.19 in 62 matches for NSW and South Australia between 1927-28 and 1947-48), and South African player Barry Richards (104.09 in 8 matches for South Australian in 1970-71).

I scoured the internet to find any pictures of Harry Rock, but was unsuccessful. This article was created by myself for the Winter 1997 issue of the “Cricket Statistician”, the magazine of the Association of Cricket Statisticians and Historians.

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