© Getty Images
© Getty Images

Clive van Ryneveld, born March 19, 1928, was one of the greatest all-round sportsmen produced by South Africa. Arunabha Sengupta pays tribute to the man who led the country to a drawn series against Peter May’s all-conquering England side.

The 1956-67 South Africans were a useful lot.

With the frightening pace duo of Neil Adcock and Peter Heine, the miserly off-spinning wizard Hugh Tayfield, the underrated and incomparable all-round skills of Trevor Goddard, the stolidity of batsmanship of Russel Endean and Roy McLean, and the dependability of John Waite on both sides of the stumps, they could give any team a run for their money.

Peter May’s Englishmen found this out the hard way. They were the unofficial world champions in the mid-1950s. With the likes of Jim Laker, Frank Tyson, Johnny Wardle, Colin Cowdrey, the veteran Denis Compton and May himself, they were a fantastic side.

Yet, even after taking a 2-0 lead in the 1956-57 series, they were held 2-2. A remarkable achievement for the unsung South African side.

Much of the credit belonged to the champion off-spinner Hugh Tayfield with his four men close to the bat in front of the wicket. But in the background there was always the easy captaincy of Clive van Ryneveld, one of the greatest all-round sportsmen produced by the country. However, the modest man maintained that he was a poor student of the game.

As a cricketer van Ryneveld was useful, and one can stop at that. He batted in the lower middle-order, scoring handy but limited number of runs. In 33 Test innings he scored just 3 fifties. He bowled leg-spinners too, usually the fifth bowler to be used, if not the sixth. Only twice did he pick up more than 2 wickets in an innings, and that against a spin-ignorant New Zealand.

As a fielder he was outstanding, especially at cover point, and later at mid-off. His tactics as skipper gelled excellently with the expectations of Tayfield. It won’t be a stretch to say that the spirited South African comeback in the 1956-57 series was overseen by this remarkable athlete, even if engineered is perhaps too lavish a term.

Yes, his cricket record is at best moderate. But he represented England in Rugby Union as well. Yes, England. At Oxford University he earned his Blues in cricket and rugby. He represented Oxford University Rugby Football Club in the Varsity match in 1947, 1948 and 1949. In the last-mentioned year, he represented England as a centre in the Five Nations Cup, playing all four matches and scoring three tries.

That makes him a remarkable double international who played the two different sports for two different countries. And a fantastic all-round sporting hero.

Yet there are other aspects of his captaincy that cast a different light on this man, and that too a favourable one. Adcock and Heine were mean pace bowlers, the former could be nasty, the latter downright fearsome. It was Adcock’s bumper that had laid Bert Sutcliffe out at Wanderers in 1953-54.

The incident prompted van Ryneveld to take a step that was as sporting as it gets. During the series against Australia that followed in 1957-58 he limited his fast bowlers to one bouncer per over. The Australians had batsmen who did not really like the short stuff. But van Ryneveld held firm. Continuous short pitched bowling was not his way of playing cricket. South Africa lost the series 0-3.

Unfortunately, limiting bouncers was not the only manner in which van Ryneveld reduced South Africa’s chances against Australia. He himself had little time to prepare for the Test matches. He took his merits as an all-rounder beyond the sporting field. At that time he was working hard trying to build up a practice at law in Cape Town. Besides, he was elected to the parliament a couple of months before the tour started. His constituency was 600 miles away in East London. He was a member of the United Party, the main opposition to the National Party.

The Tests were played after having a net on the morning of the first day. No way to prepare for a series against Australia.

Van Ryneveld played no more Test cricket after that series against Ian Craig’s men. His Test runs amounted to 724 at 26.81, and his 17 wickets came at 39.47 apiece. He dabbled occasionally in First-Class cricket, but time was always a constraint.

Two years later, in 1959, van Ryneveld became one of the twelve MPs to break away from the United Party and form the Progressive Party. He had much contribution in demonstrating that there was considerable anti-apartheid sentiment among the white South Africans. However, it is generally agreed that the Party was ahead of its time. In 1961, all but one of the Progressive MPs lost their seats. Thereafter van Ryneveld returned to practising law, and still later moved to Merchant Banking.

His political career was, hence, rather brief. But at the same time it saw several important events. There was the referendum to decide whether South Africa became a republic. There was the banning of the African National Congress and the PNC. It was during that period that Harold Macmillan delivered his famous Wind of Change speech in Cape Town.

Van Ryneveld remained attached to the game as an avid follower and was always progressive in his views. None of the nostalgic adherence to old times for him. He firmly advocated the DRS and Hawk-Eye and surfed through cricket websites for statistics even after turning 80.

Van Ryneveld passed away on March 29, 2018, aged 89.