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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How to win cricket world cups: win the toss, bat first

ICC-Cricket-World-Cup-Trophy-2011

The illusive ICC World Cup Trophy

I never stayed till the end of the India v South Africa game on a steamy night at the MCG.

As the sixth wicket fell and the sea of orange, white and green Indian flags waved triumphantly in the packed arena, and as we (meaning South Africa) began our all familiar world cup capitulation, I got up and left.

India had scored over 300 and we were about 150/6 with 20 overs remaining. It was a hopeless situation, one South African fans are all too familiar with at world cups, particularly at the knock-out stages.

In five world cup knockout games South Africa have played since their debut in 1992, they have lost four and tied one (THAT game against Australia we should have won in 1999 before the greatest choke in the history of sport).

1999: snatching defeat from the jaws of victory

1999: snatching defeat from the jaws of victory

To win world cups is a mixture of skill, luck and nerve: we have plenty of the former and not much of the other two.

But if South Africa do – as expected – make the quarterfinals and then somehow win their way through to the final, this is the surest way to win the competition:

One
Win the toss

Two
Bat first

Three
Score at least 250

(If we lose the toss, bowl them out for under 150 or less)

Winning the toss is important, but only if you take advantage of it by choosing to bat.

In the 10 world cups played to date, seven have been won by the team batting first.

This is not all that surprising. Cricket is a game of nerves, of who blinks first.The pressure is so much greater batting second. Recovery is so much harder if you get off to a poor start, and if it’s a day/night game, conditions are usually tougher batting second under the lights.

That’s unless you’ve got only a small total to chase.

In 1996 Sri Lanka chased down 240 odd against Australia and in 1999, Australia only had to score 132 against Pakistan.

The only time a team has chased down a sizeable total and won the world cup was in 2011, when India chased down 274 set by Sri Lanka, winning with 10 balls to spare thanks to an MS Dhoni special.

The cardinal error though is to win the toss and choose to field. Only one team has done that and ended up on the winning side: Sri Lanka against Australia in 1996.

In the first three world cup finals won by West Indies twice and then Australia, on each occasion, the team that won the toss chose to field and lost the game. It happened again in 2003 when India won the toss, chose to field and Australia amassed 359/2.

So my message to AB De Villiers, if we somehow start playing well enough and make it through to the final is simple:

Make sure you win the bloody toss and for heaven’s sake, BAT FIRST (and then post 300 plus!)

I know, I know…

But, we are allowed to dream, aren’t we?

The Asian Cup of rogue nations

afc-asian-cup-1420749072-2318216It struck me – with the force of a Tim Cahill wonder strike – that there was something decidedly wrong with the 2015 Asian Cup.

North Korea. Iran. Saudi Arabia. All run by brutal dictatorial regimes, all with appalling human rights records, but allowed to compete in an international sporting event.

Has the world gone mad? Have we lost our moral compass?

I ask from the perspective of a South African who remembers our isolation from world sport, forced to live off a diet of local competitions and the occasional ‘rebel’ cricket or rugby side visit.

Of course, it was quite right that we were banned, given our cruel apartheid policies, though there were some who argued that sport and politics should be kept separate and that we shouldn’t punish individuals, many of whom opposed the government’s policy of separation, from competing internationally.

Certainly, there were many great South African sportsmen and women denied their opportunity on the world stage, barred from competing at  Olympic and Commonwealth Games and from cricket, rugby and soccer world cups.

We had a world-beating cricket team in 1970 (thrashing Australia 4-0 at home) before we were kicked out of world sport, champion rugby and soccer players, swimmers and athletes.

But, I got a real shock when I saw North Korea arrive in Australia to take part in the tournament, a ridiculous charade, given they refused to give media conferences or engage with the public and thankfully were bundled out in the group stages. Clearly instructions came straight from mad dictator Kim Jong-un and his henchmen on how to behave in a foreign country, a rare treat for the lucky few who were able to travel outside of their home country. The rest stay home and starve.

Iran’s another shocker. “The Islamic Republic of Iran is a jihadist theocracy that has dragged Iran into economic depression while executing, imprisoning and intimidating its domestic opponents” wrote the Sydney Morning Herald’s Paul Sheehan recently. Iran is more dangerous than the Islamic State, he added.

Iran’s people are beaten, imprisoned, tortured…but its team is allowed to compete in the Asian Cup. Even the players over here play with fear in their hearts: during the tournament players were warned not to be photographed with young female fans.

As for Saudi Arabia, being a Jew I wouldn’t be allowed into the country (not that I have any plans to visit). Saudi Arabia is by all reports a brutal, repressive place, with medieval laws. The penalty for homosexuality is death. The penalty for blasphemy is death.  Commit adultery and the punishment is to be stoned to death. Steal and you lose a hand. State your opinion in a blog and you get flogged.

So, I ask again, has the world lost its moral compass?

Do we now turn a blind eye now to every human rights violation in the name of sport and entertainment?

Or have we finally decided that sport and politics should not mix. If so, a lot of South African sportsmen and women deserve an apology.

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.

The demise of Australian sporting prowess…or how they went from champs to chumps

france v australiaJust what has happened to Australia’s sporting prowess?

Over the weekend, the Soccerros lost 6-0 to France to accumulate a 12-0 scoreline when you tally the previous result against Brazil.

It’s been 11 years since the Wallabies last won the Bledisloe Cup and 14 years since they last won the World Cup.

The cricket team has lost three Ashes series in a row, it lost 4-0 to India earlier this year and before that lost a test series at home to South Africa.

The Olympic team won just 8 gold medals in London, its worst haul since 1988 and half the number of golds they won at Beijing.

Once a tennis powerhouse, Australia has only just returned to the David Cup world group after a six year hiatus.

Blimey, even the last two horses to win the Melbourne Cup were trained in France.

Compare this two twenty years ago.

As a once-mad South African cricket and rugby supporter, a sense of dread would come over me every time our national team played the Wallabies or the Baggy Greens throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Let’s play anyone but the Australians was my motto.

Because Australia was so damn good at cricket and rugby and just about any other sport you could think of.

It was not just they’re sporting skill and dexterity, it was a mental toughness they possessed (typified none more so than by the likes of Steve Waugh or John Eales), a do-or-die attitude that left one of the most painful of sporting moments indelibly tattooed on my brain: tieing the 1999 Cricket World Cup semi-final, a game we could not, it seemed, lose, yet somehow managed to do so (I recall celebrating victory only for it to be snatched away so cruelly by lunacy).

Tough as nails, the fiercest of competitors: Steve waugh

Tough as nails, the fiercest of competitors: Steve waugh

Beating Australia meant you had to play at your very best and when you did beat them, it almost always felt like a remarkable achievement, one where you matched both their physical abilities and were stronger mentally.

Now you can do it hardly even trying it seems.

What exactly has happened to this once proud sporting nation? Is it just going through a very bad downward patch or has their being a seismic shift in the world order?

Certainly the Socceroos were not expected to win their games against football powerhouses like France and Brazil, but they were expected to at least put up a good fight.What happened to the team that eight years ago pushed Italy all the way for a quarter-final spot at the 2006 World Cup?

The slide in rugby and cricket has been even worse, these being sports where Australia dominated on the world stage. Yes, teams go up and down, but the fall from grace has been spectacular to the say the least.

But it goes beyond results.

Just how many major sporting scandals have made the front pages of newspapers recently? I’ve lost count. It seems there’s hardly a national sport that has not been tainted lately by something or other.

There’s been the AFL and NRL doping scandals, the numerous punch-ups and bust ups in the cricket team, the bad behaviour among rugby players (James O’Connor, Kurtley Beale). Christ, even sports you’d never associate with anything remotely scurrilous have had their share of public image failures most notably the men’s swimming team, and the sleeping pill scandal. (Not to mention their complete failure to win a gold medal at the Olympics) and the recent admissions by cycling great, Stuart O’Grady that he was a drug’s cheat.

Of course I should mention there have been some exceptions: Australian golf is very strong led by Master’s champion Adam Scott and regular major challenger Jason Day plus a string of other players capable of winning big tournaments. Sam Stosur won the US Open a few years back and Australia continues to dominate at surfing and ahem…netball.

Apart from netball though, these are all individual sports and, they seem to be more the exception then the rule.

It appears that Australian sports teams have been out-psyched or perhaps they’ve out-psyched themselves, believing they’re better at losing than winning. Perhaps the endless succession of scandals can be read as a desperate attempt for them to get back to winning ways.

This is also typified in the apparent necessity to spend millions of dollars appointing overseas coaches to national teams. We’ve had a New Zealander (Robbie Deans) coach the Wallabies, a succession of foreign nationals coach the Socceroos, and a South African (Mickey Arthur) coach the cricket team with varying degrees of success. This speaks volumes about confidence and a lack of belief in the talent of local coaches and managers.

And once again, having sacked German coach Holger Osieck, the Socceroos have considered trying to literally turn back the clock and re-appoint Gus Hiddink, the Dutchman who guided them to the fourth round at the World Cup in 2006. It seems some sensibility has returned with Melbourne Victory coach Ange Postercoglou (Australian despite the exotic sounding name) set to take on the role.

All these teams will no doubt bounce back.

But the days of Australia as a sporting powerhouse, punching way above its weight and utterly dominating their rivals, appear to be over.

Mixed emotions surely for Mickey Arthur as Australia lose to South Africa

Mickey Arthur with JP Duminy

Mickey Arthur, photographed when coach of South Africa in 2009.

I cannot help but wonder how Australian coach Mickey Arthur felt after South Africa beat Australia in the final test match to lose the series and their shot at toppling the South Africans as the No. 1 ranked test side in world cricket.

Arthur of course is a South African and about as South African as they come. He’s a ‘Vaalie’ – born on the highlands of the old Transvaal – and played all his provincial cricket in South Africa for the Free State and Griqualand West.

He was appointed coach of the South African team in 2005 and the last time he visited Australia (in a professional sense) just four years ago he coached them to arguably their greatest ever test series win – and their first ever series victory against Australia – since being re-admitted into world cricket in 1991.

Having fallen out with the South African cricket authorities in 2010, he coached Western Australia for a season and was then appointed Australia’s first foreign-born coach in November last year.

Now I am not for one moment suggesting that Arthur is not a thorough professional and has not given it his all as Australian coach – and let’s be honest they  outplayed South Africa in the first two tests and could easily have been No.1 in the world at the end of this series had it not been for FaF Du Plessis’s heroics in the second test – but I find it hard to imagine that Mickey Arthur did not take some pleasure in watching his old team and the players he coached just a few season ago win against the odds against the country of his birth’s greatest sporting rivals.

I have lived in Australia for over eight years, my daughter is Australian and my wife holds and Australian passport and yet I cannot bring myself to support the Australian cricket team or the Wallabies.

In fact I am sure they will put on my grave one day – “He died a Bok fan.”

You see the thing is this, when you grow up in South Africa, beating Australia in any sport (even lawn bowls and darts) is considered the ultimate victory.

Rivalries run very deep between the two sporting nations, and not least because there is a great deal of respect for Australia’s sporting prowess.

South Africans consider Australia one of the great sporting nations – especially when it comes to cricket – and while we have managed to beat all the other teams on a regular basis, beating the Baggy Greens has been tough – this win is only our second ever Test series triumph since re-admission.11187061_24c0790592

I found these two comments on the Supersport website (the equivalent of Fox Sports in South Africa) at the bottom of a story about the latest series win:

“South Africa clobbered Australia. It was so easy, it was scary!”

“Amazing always good to thrash the ozzies.”

Personally, I remember waking up in the early hours of the morning or watching through the night games played against Australia through the 1990s – mostly on the losing side, occasionally a much-savoured win.

The truth is being a South African cricket fan is being the ultimate sporting tragic.

A lot of times it’s been an exercise in heartache – primarily when it comes to World Cups, when we have conjured up defeats from the jaws of victory, and must live with the scars of the 1999 World Cup semi-final tie that will go down as the greatest choke in our rich sporting history, plus the sad saga of Hansie Cronje.

There are many South African expats living in Perth, Sydney and Melbourne who say they support the Australian cricket team and the Wallabies, but I have yet to meet any that I believed with any conviction.

Equally there are South Africans who have lived here many decades who still support the Proteas and Springboks and that I suspect will be me too.

It’s not that I have some deep-seated animosity to the Baggy Greens or the Wallabies, it’s just in my blood.

And it’s also surely in the blood of Mickey Arthur – who is more South African than me.

And though he will surely deny it, I am sure he did take some pleasure out of watching the team he coached to their greatest win four years ago win again this week.

After all, he’s only human!

(And the same I am sure can be said for Robbie Deans, New Zealand-born and raised coach of the Wallabies).