Clive Rice © Getty Images
Clive Rice was perhaps the greatest all-rounder the Test world never saw © Getty Images

Clive Rice, the greatest all-rounder the Test world never saw, passed away on July 28. Arunabha Sengupta pays tribute to him by recollecting his own special memories of the legend. READ: Clive Rice mastered cricket, but could not conquer time

I did not meet Clive Rice in the flesh. There were a handful of half-hatched plans of conjuring up that one meeting that I would have dearly loved to take place. They remained in the works, unimplemented, halfway between fanciful dreams and practical logistics, and the man himself slipped through the great divide far before his time.

Yet, there was a special, special relationship I shared with the legend. One that has perhaps touched me the deepest in all my association with the cricket world. If I could go back in time and meet one of the many, many greats of the game who have passed over to the land where stumps is never called, it would be this superlative South African all-rounder. READ: Clive Rice: The most experienced First-Class and List A cricketer from South Africa

That is not to say that I have never seen him. I did have the privilege of watching him in action, in that historic comeback match of South Africa in 1991-92, when, at the Eden Gardens, he led the South Africans back into the international fold at the age of 42. I was a teenager then, sitting in the baking stands amidst the 90,000. Perhaps some of the immensity of the historical occasion did not quite register in the blatantly pro-Indian mind-set. I wanted to see my heroes in action.

However, I did know about the barrel-chested man who led the side out on to the field and acknowledged the crowd with his hands joined together in the traditional Indian manner. His deeds for Nottinghamshire had been stirring enough to make the pages of the Indian magazines even in the rather restricted international reportage of the 1980s. And I knew of the victories he had enjoyed in the all-rounder tournaments —in three of the four such competitions — over four blokes by the names of Imran Khan, Kapil Dev, Richard Hadlee, and Ian Botham.

It would be 22 years before our paths would cross again. And the manner in which it took place was what made it so special to me. READ: Clive Rice: 15 facts about the champion

It was almost dream-like. It was January 27, 2013. I had written an article remembering the devastating duet of willows orchestrated by Barry Richards and Viv Richards on that date in 1978 during the Kerry Packer World Series. In the late afternoon, there suddenly appeared a comment below the piece. Written by Clive himself. “That was just the challenge that Barry needed to bring the very best out of him. The two of them were possibly the best at the time along with Graeme Pollock. Fantastic experience playing against them.”

There it was. A feeling of glorious elation. Clive Rice, the man I had watched in action as a wide-eyed kid, had read my article and had commented on it. Was it a one-off thing? Did the serendipitous world of search engines guide him to the piece since there was only a limited amount written about the South Africans of that era?

And then it happened again, barely a month later. On March 1, 2013, I wrote about the world record setting 365 not out by Garry Sobers essayed on that very day of 1958. And lo! There was another comment, keyed in by the South African great. Generous and flattering. “Well done, you bring up some great moments in the game and the history of cricket is fantastic.”

More than being delighted, and being assured that at least someone read the historical pieces, it was an opportunity that I could not let go. I contacted him, asking for an interview. Two days later, I was speaking to Clive on phone, for over two hours, resulting in one of the most detailed and no-holds-barred conversation I have ever conducted.

Clive was a delight. It was a fascinating joyride through an era still considerably little known. He talked about the way South African cricket survived during those years, the rebel tours, the great experiences for Nottinghamshire and the Transvaal Mean Machine, the Calcutta comeback, and later the politics and the frustrations. He loved to talk, he loved it when someone asked questions about a part of his life not too many remembered. I still recall the pleasant delight in his voice when I asked him to talk about the Jumbo Bat incident. I could almost visualise the smile that spread under the imposing moustache as he asked in amusement, “When I posed nude?” And, yes. He pulled no punches. He had his doubts and opinions about the deaths of Bob Woolmer and Hansie Cronje. He voiced them loud and clear.

Four months later, on his birthday, I wrote his biography for CricketCountry. During the course of my research, I found out anew what a fantastic cricketer he had been. And how unfortunate the Test world had been to miss out on his heroics. When I sent it to him, his response was immediate. “Hi Arun, That’s a fantastic article and thanks for doing it for me on my birthday. I hope you do not mind me posting it on Facebook?”

Of course I did not mind. Who in his right mind would? Clive posted the article and was as usual lavish with his praise. “It was great research by Arun, because I had forgotten about many of the incidents.”

Not only one of the greatest of all-rounders the world has seen and perhaps the greatest all-rounder never to play Test cricket. He was one of the most generous of souls. His heart had remained large in spite of the many crushing heartbreaks and disappointments that would have blackened that of a lesser man. READ: Clive Rice: How he compared against Imran Khan, Ian Botham, Kapil Dev, and Richard Hadlee

The endorsements remained effusive as the days went on. He always commented when I wrote about the past South African stars, Jackie McGlew, Neil Adcock, Bruce Mitchell and others. When I paid tribute to Garth le Roux, he gushed on his Facebook wall, “Arunabha Sengupta has written a fantastic article on Garth Le Roux … Fantastic history of the games we played together in World Series Cricket in Aussie. I had forgotten some of the games and it was great to recall them again. Great cricket history and I am delighted Garth’s history in the game has been recorded in the article.”

In the current day of cricket reporting, very, very few have the inclination to read about the past of the game. Eyeballs are rare, and the zeal of penning these can waver at times. But, if someone like Clive read and enjoyed them, it was worth it.

Later that year, in October, the long-awaited announcement of Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement from the game set the world of cricket journalism in frenzy. In the mad rush for quotes and comments, I turned to Clive. It took him fifteen minutes to set up the telephonic interview. The resulting article saw him speaking from the depths of his heart as he always did.

More importantly, he was ever willing to give me hours of his time, even as every minute grew more and more precious. That day, before hanging up, I thanked him for continuing to read my articles and endorsing them. His response was brief, heart-touching and too precious to depreciate by sharing with the world. Suffice to say that it still rings in my ears, his cheery voice, full of love for life, living on in my memories.

The struggle that he underwent, the frequent treatments, the relentless fight with terminal illness, were all well known to the ones who knew him. Yet, when he did pass away, it came as a jolt. One never quite expects a man so full of life and with zest for living to depart forever. Five days before that, I had sent him best wishes for his birthday. His response had been as prompt and friendly as ever.

His death at 66 is too premature, given the standards of longevity today and given the force of life that was in him. However, he did live his life to the fullest.

Last night, in the Derek Randall Suite at Trent Bridge, Jonathan Agnew recalled speaking to him after the comeback match at Calcutta in 1990. “It was a record ODI crowd, well beyond 90,000. Fireworks, extraordinary noise. After the fascinating match, we got back to the hotel and I found him by the swimming pool. I asked him, ‘How does it feel Clive?’ He looked at me and said in his quiet voice, ‘Now I know how Neil Armstrong felt.’”

Living through an era of cricketing darkness for his nation, Clive Rice did manage to land on the moon. We can rejoice in a life well spent.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)