Or was he a bigot, who never spoke out enough against apartheid and could have done more to highlight the importance of developing black players?
Such a debate, as with so much in South Africa, is split along racial lines.
Speak to whites, and Rice is a great all-rounder, unlucky not to have had an international career on account of his peak years as a player coinciding with South Africa’s ban from international sporting competition.
His deeds as the head of the Transvaal “Mean Machine” and for English County, Nottinghamshire, may well have seen him mentioned in the same breath as Ian Botham, Imran Khan, Richard Hadlee or Kapil Dev, had he played Test cricket. For Rice, however, that was not to be.
It seems this left him bitter. It didn’t help he was denied the chance to play in the 1992 World Cup, an event he was desperate to use to sign off his over two-decade-long career.
However, there was a role Rice could have played in South African cricket had he recognised the changes the country was going through.
He was, starting in 1995, the manager of the then United Cricket Board’s (UCB’s) development academy, which aimed to accelerate the growth of players – black and white – with international potential.
Rice, as many of his contemporaries explain, placed excellence above development and at no stage appeared to reason the two could and had to be combined. The South African team needed to be more representative of the racial demographic of the country and Cricket SA – in its previous guise as the UCB – were desperate for that to be the case.
Instead of using the expertise he’d garnered throughout his career – whether in South Africa, England or Australia, where he played in Kerry Packer’s World Series competition – Rice tore into Cricket SA’s development policy. In a 2004 interview with the Daily Telegraph in England, Rice said: “It’s apartheid in reverse. White players are being driven out of our country in droves. Good luck to them. There’s no future here.
“The (UCB) have got it into their heads that there is a generation of black and coloured players straining at the leash to play Test cricket and holding back whites is the only way they will ever get a chance to shine.
“Unfortunately, few black South Africans regard cricket as their national game. They are more interested in football.”
The England cricket team’s 2-1 Test series victory in the summer of 2004-05 emboldened Rice.
To him it justified his own position that the South African side wasn’t good enough. That Kevin Pietersen, a player Rice had encouraged and helped to leave South Africa to play for England, would return that summer to make hundreds against the land of his birth further justified Rice’s opinion about South African cricket.
That the national side would use that summer to turn around its fortunes and eventually build a side which became the No 1 Test team in the world left Rice looking like an even more bitter figure. He was heavily – it could be argued harshly – critical of Graeme Smith, who would go on to captain the side to historic Test series wins in England and Australia on two occasions.
The number of victories that occurred under Smith’s leadership, which included celebrated performances from black cricketers – Makhaya Ntini at Lord’s in 2003, JP Duminy at Melbourne in 2008 and Hashim Amla at The Oval in 2013 – completely debunk Rice’s theories about the direction South African cricket was taking.
He could have played a role in improving the sport in this country, in building bridges and establishing excellence. Sadly, he chose not to.
The country and the South African team moved on, and the Rice role in the sport was left blemished.
The Sunday Independent
Original source: Rice leaves flawed legacy