Cricket: Hard labour on the Rice fields

Cricket: Nottinghamshire count on the inspirational qualities of an old favourite to restore the glory
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THE FIRST requirement for anyone meeting Clive Rice is a head for heights. To reach his office at Trent Bridge, you must first climb to the upper level of the two-tier Bridgford Road stand and then - pausing only to exchange glances with top-deck passengers on a passing bus - scale an open metal staircase leading to what might be best described as a portable office on stilts. It is a terrific spot, so far as Rice is concerned: from there he can monitor his players' every move.

From the ground it might not appear quite so perfect. Positioned right next to the pavilion, it is an eerie that can scarcely be missed as players head for the dressing rooms, and the occupant can expect to be more readily likened to a vulture than an eagle. For sure, should Nottinghamshire's season deliver more of the diminishing returns of the last few, then departing batsmen or vanquished bowlers will not care to look upwards as they pass. The moustachioed man with the baseball cap covering his balding dome is unlikely to be greeting them with a cheery wave.

Around these parts, of course, Clive Rice is synonymous with success. Under his captaincy, Nottinghamshire won their first Championship for 52 years in 1981 and coupled it with the NatWest Trophy six years later in a double-winning year. Even when he left, successful habits continued, yielding more silverware in 1989 (Benson and Hedges Cup) and 1991 (Sunday League).

The last few summers, however, have been less bright. As a Test match ground, graced by the magnificent new Radcliffe Road stand, Trent Bridge has blossomed. Not so the team. In the Championship, the county's four- year record reads 11th, 17th, 13th, 16th. Which is why, despite previous rebuttals, Nottinghamshire felt moved last autumn, with the prospect of two divisions looming, to say farewell to Alan Ormrod and fax the Rice home in Johannesburg with an offer to become director of cricket too good to refuse.

Hence he sits in his eerie, his desk containing a three-year contract worth giving up his position as head of South Africa's cricket academy for, plotting Nottinghamshire's return to championship glory, starting at Leicester today. Only Tim Robinson, Paul Johnson and Kevin Evans remain from Rice's days as a player but, somehow, the remainder of the squad have had no need for them to recount tales of the taskmaster who drove them to unimagined heights; they know already they are in for a tough season.

Rice will be 50 this summer and last autumn had a four centimetre tumour, thankfully benign, removed from behind his left ear. "I woke up with a hell of a headache," he said. "Think of all the alcohol you have ever consumed in your life and you might have an idea of what it was like. I lost the hearing in my left ear but it was a price worth paying."

None the less, he has not mellowed much. Even before he had set eyes on the players who would become his charges, he made it clear what he would expect. "People who do not want to play can leave," he said. "People who say things like `I'm tired, we play too much cricket nowadays' can leave. That's how I see it from here."

From his new perspective, nothing appears any different. "If someone does not want to give 100 per cent, I don't want to know his troubles," he said. "When I was running the academy in South Africa you could see who was going to make it by who wanted to go that extra mile.

"It is not just 100 per cent but 110 per cent they have to give because that 10 per cent over and above drives them to heights they might not have thought they would ever achieve.

"I don't think the players will find me easy to please. If a batsman gets a 50 or an 80 or 90 that does not mean he will have done his job to my satisfaction because you look at the scorecards any day and you will see lots of 50s, 80s and 90s. But if he gets 160 I will say well done.

"I've set every player a personal goal and challenged him to do better. I remember when Chris Broad joined us as a player, I set him a target that was 10 per cent better than anything he had achieved. He has since told me just how much that meant for him because within six weeks of coming here he was in the England side.

"I want to achieve the success I had as a player and reproduce it here, to get back into the side the passion for playing and playing to win. The players might not end up liking me but they will like winning and they will like the self- fulfilment."

In between quaking in their boots, however, the current crop of Trent Bridge under-achievers can take some heart: Rice at least thinks the bunch he took over in the 70s were worse. "Then the only thing that really mattered to the players was to finish one point ahead of Derbyshire, who were just as poor," he said.

"Today the raw material is a lot more promising. It has saddened me to see the county falling away but these things go in cycles. You build a team up and that team will play and win for a few years but then start to tail off. The wheel has turned and they are at the bottom again but there is a nucleus there and they can come through and build it back up.

"The key thing is self-belief. You've all got talent but it is who believes in themselves that matters. I have been pleasantly surprised by their attitude. They are a decent bunch of guys as well. But they have doubted their ability and as a result gone downhill. It is how we can make them believe in what they can do that is the key."

To that end, in part, he has signed, in place of Paul Strang as the overseas player, the one-time Sussex all-rounder Vasbert Drakes, an inspirational and talented West Indian based in South Africa whose non-participation in the Red Stripe Cup precludes his selection for the West Indies team.

"He is probably the best player not going to the World Cup," Rice said. "At Border his contribution to the team has been fantastic, especially to the younger bowlers. If he can do that here he will be a great asset."

There will be a role, too, for the likes of Broad, Graham Dilley and even Richard Hadlee, his partner in the glory days, who has agreed to mix a summer of speaking engagements with bowling "master classes" at Trent Bridge. "Cricket's great irony," Rice said, "is that just at the moment a player finally works out what the game is all about it is time for him to retire. But these are guys who know what they were trying to do and can pass that knowledge on."

Whether that knowledge empowers today's players to reproduce Rice's own success he cannot forecast. But he wants each player to at least fulfil his potential. "How quickly that happens depends upon individual attitudes," he said. "But if this team is capable of success I would expect them to get there in three to five years."

`People who do not want to play can leave. People who say things like "I'm tired" can leave. That's how I see it from here'