RIP Ricey, cricketing Rambo

2015-07-28 13:05
Clive Rice (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – That bloody red and white Avis cap ... off the field, it seemed to follow him everywhere. He could never seem to take the damned thing off.

Perhaps it was because he went prematurely, notably bald on top, although you can’t imagine Clive Edward Butler Rice ever being remotely hung up about that ... or anything else, especially if it involved cricket.

Rather, he was one of those defiantly pioneering, sponsored “professionals” before his time, whilst South African cricket remained predominantly, naively amateur in character, divided and firmly isolated from the rest of the world.

He would have learnt a trick or two in that regard – a bit like Barry Richards, another not-hugely-establishment character did – by experiencing many years of county cricket in the South African off-season (as well as boasting involvement in the Kerry Packer revolution that shook the game to its foundations).

Those were halcyon days of the English domestic game, because it was teeming with the very finest cricketers from around the planet, international schedules not being nearly as prolific as they are nowadays.

So it was really for Nottinghamshire that Ricey’s true pedigree came most fittingly to light, given that he was one of many magnificent South African players of the period, from various backgrounds, starved of Test and ODI activity for the huge bulk of their careers.

His alliance with another luminary all-rounder, New Zealand’s Sir Richard Hadlee, became the stuff of legend at Trent Bridge, and it was entirely appropriate that in both players’ swansong season there in 1987, Notts won both the Championship and NatWest Trophy for what is probably still their finest campaign on record.

But it was back home, of course, that Johannesburg-born Rice – the consummate Transvaler, if you like – spearheaded, in leadership and so much more, a ruthless reign of his province’s “Mean Machine” in the late 1970s and most of the 80s.

Rice was already an established kingpin of the team when he succeeded David Dyer as captain, and he simply took budding, habitual conquest to a different level as Transvaal bossed the old Currie Cup, Datsun Shield and fledgling days of the Benson & Hedges night series to a near-outrageous degree.

Who could ever forget that top six batting line-up: Cook, Fotheringham, Kallicharran, Pollock, Rice, McKenzie? Or the attack: Clarke, Radford, Rice, Kourie, Page?

Somewhere in there also, of course, was squeezed the rubber-man of wicketkeeping, Ray Jennings, although Rice was the sublime balancer of the XI with the multi-skilled personal package he offered it.

If hefty West Indian “Sly” Clarke was the pace provocateur-in-chief with his throat-following bouncer, Rice was seldom far behind for pure hostility as he did a pretty mean bumper too, when not crushing toes with an on-the-money yorker.

The great thing about Ricey, a promoter’s dream, was his ability to taunt the opposition – he took a special fancy to baiting traditional southern rivals Western Province – in the press in the match lead-up, and then almost unfailingly back up his gung-ho words with damaging, game-tilting actions.

The bouncy track of the Wanderers, naturally, was so often his most desirable playground, yet I used to eagerly look forward to joining a small (about three, then) posse of newspaper scribes in his hotel room at the Newlands Holiday Inn soon after Transvaal had climbed off their flight for the New Year Currie Cup “Test”.

He would speak the hind leg off the donkey in suggesting exactly where he felt Province would be frail.

And then, voila, they so often would be.

It was easy to tell that he loved the stick he got from the Capetonian faithful at times, as it only tended to spur him – and by extension the troops who rallied hungrily behind him – to greater heights in dominance.

Every now and then, good-naturedly booed from the Willows and Railway Stand enclosures even as he innocuously fielded a slow-moving ball at mid-off, he would play memorably to the gallery, pointing to the scoreboard and then making a “shhhh” sign over his lips with his index finger.

Behind that expansive moustache frequently lay an on-field scowl – sometimes mock, sometimes grimly serious in the heat of combat – but Ricey could see the funny side of a good chirp, too.

Once, when he’d uncharacteristically gone 0/80 on the Newlands featherbed after sharing the new ball duty in that match, the man with ice in his veins could not contain a facial crumple when a wag piped up: “Hey Rice ... I thought you was (sic) a shock bowler. Ja, you are sure bowling shocking today.”

At the height of his powers, Rice was responsible for perhaps the seminal moment in Currie Cup cricket history when, in the advanced shadows of the final day of the 1976/77 New Year clash there, he bowled then-rookie WP wicketkeeper Rob Drummond with the last ball of a pulsating contest, for which the SABC delayed the 19:00 English radio news to accommodate live commentary until 19:03.

Under that marvellous gambler Eddie Barlow, WP had elected to thrillingly hunt down a seemingly impossible target of 252 in precious little time to win, and the great irony was that come that delivery, they’d finally decided to shut up shop for the intended, honourable draw at 247 for nine after a mighty go at the requirement.

It was understandably felt that it was asking too much for UCT novice Drummond to smash Rice -- already a highly revered bowling “finisher” -- for six, so the medical student played a textbook forward defensive stroke ... only for the wily ‘Vaal scrapper to get one through the gate and rattle his timber for an immortal away win.

That was the kind of ceaseless, enduring, unflappable competitor Rice was.

He never lost his dogged business instinct, either: for several years after I’d converted from specialist cricket writing to a more general sports role, he would ring occasionally to try to flog me fax-to-email solutions, talking them up as though shrewdly raising passions and bolstering ticket sales before another of those north v south scraps.

He needed every bit of his combative spirit to ward off the ravages of illness in recent years, confessing in interviews ahead of his passing at 66 that many of the procedures he underwent in a gallant bid to prolong his life were painful.

For Clive Rice to say that, I can only imagine they must have been utterly excruciating.

So long Ricey; it’s time for that cap to go over your eyes.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    clive rice  |  cricket

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