MODERN day international cricket often involves players having to travel extensively and spend significant periods away from home. The current Ashes series requires the Australians to travel halfway round the world to spend a couple of months in Blighty. And with Scotland’s Twenty20 cricketers qualifying from their current campaign to play in next years’ World Finals they will have to travel to Kolkata – formerly Calcutta – in India where the tournament is to be staged in March and April. At least the dislocation to their usual lifestyles will be cushioned by the comfortable travel provided and by the quality accommodation and hospitality laid on for them. Every step will be taken to ensure their needs are met.

Contrast that with the experiences of Scottish international cricketer RS Clark a century ago in the southern hemisphere. It is extremely unlikely that our current cricketers will, for example, have to camp out on ice floes for months while desperately clinging onto life or have to endure horrendous blizzards in sub-zero temperatures following shipwreck and survive on a diet of penguin and seal meat. As a member of Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition between 1914 and 1916, Clark had to face such ordeals as he and his colleagues struggled to stay alive.

By the time he embarked on the expedition, Robert Selbie Clark was a well-known Scottish cricketer, having represented the Scottish Counties against India in 1911 and Scotland against Ireland in 1912. Born in Aberdeen in 1882, he attended Aberdeen Grammar School and Aberdeen University, where by 1911 he had graduated MA and BSc, having combined teaching in Blairgowrie with his science studies. He forged his reputation playing for Aberdeenshire CC where as a stylish batsman and “brilliant wicketkeeper” he topped the batting averages regularly, notching a few centuries as he did so. A sporting all-rounder, he also kept goal for Aberdeen University with occasional appearances for Aberdeen reserves, and was an accomplished golfer and angler.

A new appointment in Edinburgh in 1912 led to him also playing for the capital’s Carlton club. His arrival there was recorded as follows-“RS Clark came to us from Aberdeenshire with a great cricketing reputation; he was a beautiful bat using his wrists to full advantage making a panoply of classic strokes.”

Soon he was on the move again, taking up an appointment in marine biology in Plymouth. This led to his involvement in the expedition as Shackleton was planning it there. When first invited to join as biologist, Clark refused but then had a change of heart ,which he left late, only joining the ‘Endurance’ half an hour before she sailed. Even then his uncertainty about the enterprise seems to have continued as he wrote in his diary aboard, “I cannot think what I am doing here and shall certainly return from Buenos Aires.” Gradually he became more committed to the expedition as he began collecting specimens and logging observations. This was confirmed when Shackleton recorded, ”We heard a great yell from the floe and found Clark dancing about and shouting Scottish war cries; he had secured his first complete specimen of an Antarctic fish.” He was fascinated by the icy seas and landscapes and as the ‘Endurance’ made its way through the polar ice pack, he and his shipmates amused themselves by claiming that the “clack clack” call of the penguins was actually “Clark Clark”.

In 1915, disaster struck when the ‘Endurance’ was trapped in ice and in October the ship had to be abandoned, with Clark and his colleagues forced to camp out on ice floes. After about six nightmarish months of non-stop blizzards in sub-zero temperatures, they set off in lifeboats and on April 15, 1916 made it to Cape Valentine on Elephant Island, an inhospitable icebound dot in the map 600 miles south of the Falklands, in the south Shetlands. But that was far from the end of Clark’s troubles. Nine days later, Shackleton and five crew set off on a rescue mission to South Georgia whaling station some 800 miles distant, leaving Clark and 21 colleagues behind. For the next four months, they had to survive in two upturned lifeboats resting on parallel dykes of boulders with canvas from their tents covering the walls and roof of this makeshift abode. To keep spirits up they would sing, ”It’s the most palatial residence in Elephant Isle”. A tall man, Clark was allotted a berth in ‘the attic’, between the thwarts and the bottom of the boat, which required him to lie horizontally to sleep, read and eat, all in the one position. Bitterly cold south westerly blizzards alternated with damp north easterly winds.

Often described as ‘taciturn’ and ‘typical dour Scot’, Clark was nevertheless a calm and composed individual – qualities he brought on to the cricket square – who was credited with maintaining morale among the men in appallingly dreadful conditions. His ability as a cook also helped as did his alcoholic concoction named ‘Gut Rot 1916” which Clark made using methylated spirits, sugar, ginger and water. This was drunk on Saturdays to toasts of “To wives and sweethearts – may they never meet!”

After what must have seemed more like four years than four months, Shackleton returned with a rescue party and the worst of Clark’s ordeal was over. His role in the expedition was recognised with the award of the silver Polar medal with clasp. Once home he married but instead of settling down to enjoy married life and some deserved rest and relaxation, he enlisted in the Royal Navy as a lieutenant on minesweepers in the North Sea for the rest of the war.

Once peace broke out he returned to Plymouth where he played for Devon in the Minor Counties, topping the batting averages in 1921 before returning to Aberdeen. He continued to split his appearances between Aberdeenshire and Carlton, being a member of the unbeaten Carlton team of 1924. That year, aged 42, he gained a further three caps for Scotland – against Yorkshire and twice against the touring South Africans, recording a respectable innings of 29 in the first of the Springbok matches. The following year he scored an outstanding 97 no for Aberdeenshire against Forfarshire and in 1926 gained the last of his representative honours, for Scottish Counties against The Rest, at Dundee.

The Carlton chronicler, Dr NL Stevenson, writing of Clark in the early 1940’s stated, "On his day he gave the impression of being a super batsman, so effortless was his play, which even today is spoken of with admiration from Mannofield [Aberdeen] to the far off playing fields of Devon where as opening bat he scored several centuries and in at least one season headed the Devon County batting averages. In my time the club has had few better recruits than Dr RS Clark.”

Clark’s cricket career is a distinguished one, particularly so given that it resumed and flourished despite a lengthy interruption through the unimaginable hardships of the expedition followed by naval service in the war. Today’s international cricketers and sportsmen in general are, by comparison, a cosseted lot and it is hard to imagine that an international cricketer or sportsman would now grace the field with such a backstory. To describe Clark’s life as colourful and adventuresome is indeed to give understatement a bad name.