Remembering Clive Rice and why you never truly forget your childhood sporting heroes

clive rice bowling

Clive Rice and his distinctive bowling style

It was with great sadness tinged with a palpable nostalgia that I learned of the passing of South African cricket all-rounder Clive Rice.

The sadness was understandable – Clive Rice was one of the country’s all time sporting heroes.

But the nostalgia caught me by surprise.

The truth is I’d not thought about Clive Rice or indeed any other of those “great” players from my childhood for a very long time.

To be honest, I didn’t even know that Clive Rice had been so unwell and for such a long time.

But his passing at the relatively young age of 66, brought back a flood of memories both personal and sporting.

In my memories of growing up in Johannesburg as a privileged white kid, Clive Rice, with his handle bar moustache, balding head, unflappable demeanour and larrikin nature looms larger than a life, a sporting hero during a time when we were isolated from the world game.

I remember him as both a fearsome all-rounder – able to rescue a middle order collapse with his batting or destroy the opposition with his fast bowling, in particular those deadly in-swinging yorkers. He was also a formidable leader of province (Transvaal), county (Nottinghamshire) and country (South Africa during the rebel cricket tours) and could – I believe – have guided South Africa to that elusive World Cup had we been allowed to compete.

Sadly, despite his sporting talents, Clive Rice was denied the opportunity to prove himself on the world stage because nearly all of his long career – he retired in his early forties – coincided with South Africa’s banishment from world cricket. Indeed he was picked for the South African tour to Australia in the early 1970s that was later cancelled, heralding our sporting isolation for two decades.

He played just three one day internationals and no official test matches, captaining South Africa on their historic return to world cricket in India in 1991.

His first class playing record speaks for itself. Twenty-six thousand odd runs at an average of 40 and nearly 1000 wickets at average of just 22.

Not many modern-day cricketers can boast a record like that. Rice, had he played a full international career, would have been comparable to the best in the game: Imran Khan, Ian Botham, Richard Hadlee and Jacques Kallis.

Captaining South Africa against India in 1991

Captaining South Africa against India in 1991

As I read the numerous articles of tribute to Clive Rice – and deservedly there were many like this great piece by South African journalist Luke Alfred for espncricinfo.com – I found my mind drifting back more than twenty years.

I am 13 or so years old. A nervous, awkward kid in owl-shaped glasses and a dorky t-shirt.

It’s Saturday. A gorgeous Johannesburg summer morning. A light breeze is blowing and there’s clear blue skies, about 22 degrees. I am sitting with my dad in the old wooden bleachers at the Wanderers stadium – long before they were replaced them with bucket seats.

We eating our homemade sandwiches and taking turns with the binoculars.  I’m thumbing my way through the match day program studying the player profiles while my dad reads the Citizen newspaper and sips from a can of TAB.

Clive Rice is there of course, commanding his troops on the field as fearsome West Indies quick Sylvester Clarke or Spook Hanley or Neal Radford steam into bowl for Transvaal, the unbeatable ‘Mean Machine’.

Or perhaps he’s in the dressing room as Jimmy Cook, Graeme Pollock or Alvin Kallicharran bat us into a commanding position.

At the lunch time break we walk onto the field to inspect the pitch (these were the days when you could still do that) as informal games of cricket are played against the advertising boards. Then we stroll around the ground – my dad and I, perhaps both wearing denim shorts – as the smell of boerewors and steak waft into the highveld air from smokey braais.

A thrill for me: spotting some of the players as they stroll past us on their way to lunch in their cricket whites, gentleman warriors from a tribe of sporting gladiators.

Other sporting memories crowd in:  Afternoons watching Currie Cup rugby on the sofa eating biltong and naartjies (Mandarins). Getting into arguments with my younger brother as Spurs lose again to Man United.  Trying to study for exams while Wimbledon tennis is on TV. Watching the rebel cricket tours. Watching Australia thrash England in the Ashes again.

And then Clive Rice returns again to my thoughts.

To those momentous days in November 2001, Mandela a free man, the country on a shaky path to freedom as he leads an awed team of old and new players back from the sporting wilderness in front of those huge, adoring crowds in India.

Though he hopes to play in the 1992 World Cup in Australia, these are the final days of his great career.

There he is with the handle bar moustache, the suavity, the grin and almost completely bald head, but just as cool as I remember him from those days when he was one of my sporting idols.

Rest in peace Clive. Thanks for the memories, both yours and mine.

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Confessions of a cricket tragic

This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review

Retired skipper Graeme Smith with the Test mace, signifying South Africa's number one ranking

Retired skipper Graeme Smith with the Test mace, signifying South Africa’s number one ranking

To be a South African cricket supporter residing in Australia is to be a true cricket tragic.

As we slid to another home series defeat against Australia in Cape Town, I dashed off a tweet about the last Test side to beat the Baggy Greens at home, a team know as the “Invincibles” which white-washed Bill Lawry’s tourists 4-0 way back in 1970. A colleague replied: “Oh come on, Larry, nostalgia is the last refuge.”

Perhaps he was right. Perhaps it was a foolhardy attempt to prop up my spirits after yet another home series failure against the old foe; the only blight on an exceptional record that has seen South Africa rank as the No. 1 Test side in world cricket for many years and unbeaten in 14 Test series dating back to 2009.

No defeat hurts more than to lose against Australia (the 1999 World Cup semi-final still haunts me), no victory is more sweetly savoured.

When we finally did win a Test series against Australia in 2009, away from home, and then again 2012, also away from home, it was indeed a sweet moment for a biltong-eating expat like myself.

But a home Test series win against Australia has eluded us in seven attempts since we returned to world cricket in 1992 with just two draws and five defeats.

Back in 1970, just prior to being cast into the sporting wildness, South Africa was a dominant side with a host of superstars in the making. Top of the pile was Graeme Pollock, considered by many to be the finest left-handed batsman the game has produced. In a career of just 23 Tests, Pollock scored 2256 runs at an average of almost 61. I was lucky enough to see Graeme Pollock bat in the early 1980s, when he was approaching 40 and in the twilight of his career. It was at the “Bull ring” – the Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg, where Pollock would come into bat at number 4 for provincial side Transvaal, known then as the “Mean Machine” and packed with star players including West Indians Alvin Kallichirran and Sylvester Clarke (relics of earlier “rebel” tours). The side was captained by the handlebar-moustached all rounder Clive Rice, whose rich talents sadly coincided with our period of isolation, meaning he never played a single official Test. I’d sit there with my dad in the wooden seats, long before they knocked down the old grandstand, eating a chicken mayo sandwich, binoculars trained on the pitch, watching the bowlers run in.

When it was his turn to bat, Pollock would lazily stroll to the wicket Viv Richards-style and take his guard nonchalantly. When in form, he was a sight to behold, able to clip a fast bowler off his toes for six with just a flick of his bat. I still have his signature in a little green autograph book I kept as a lad. Others in that 1970 Test side that never got the opportunity to fulfil their burgeoning talents included opening batsman Barry Richards, who scored 508 runs against Australia at an average of 72 (in what was to be his only Test series), all rounder Mike Procter, who picked up an incredible 26 wickets at 14 a piece and captain Ali Bacher, whose record against Australia was seven wins from eight matches (he was also part of the team  that beat Australia 3-1 in a home series in 1966-67, captained by Peter van der Merwe).

Softly spoken, calm and diplomatic Ali Bacher was a constantly on television. As our leading cricket administrator, he organised the rebel tours in the 1980s that kept cricket alive during isolation and in 1992 led the country back into world cricket. Of course,  I remember everything back then – the smell of boerewors wafting up from braais (barbeques) around the stadium; the colourful match programs packed with statistics about my heroes; walking across the field to inspect the pitch with my dad during the lunch break – from the viewpoint of a privileged white upbringing.

I was too young and naive to understand the country’s cruel reality: that apartheid robbed generations of black, Indian and mixed-race South Africans of participating in the game.

Thankfully, that’s all changed and our team is a now a better reflection of the ‘‘rainbow nation”, with players of colour like Hashim Amla, Vernon Philander and Alviro Peterson all households names. Just last month, a junior South African side packed with players of all colours beat Pakistan to win the under 19 World Cup. Perhaps they will one day guide us to a home series win against Australia. A World Cup win would be nice too.