"We're in the departure lounge," says Clive Rice about himself and his old mate Graeme Pollock, who recently had a pin put into his fractured hip because he fell getting out of the bath.
At first you think he might be exaggerating, but as he goes on to detail his physical trials, you sense that he might not be that far from the truth. First came the malaria, nasty at the best of times, but in Rice's case it caused him four fits because it had become cerebral. Combine this with a cancerous growth cut out of his leg and lesions in each lung - two in the right, three in the left - and Rice has been in the wars.
"To deal with the lesions they cut you open down your ribs, pull the ribs apart and collapse the lungs," he says matter-of-factly. "I was in unbelievable pain. I'd rather play rugby against the All Blacks. Then there were four treatments of chemo. That was in November. I've slowly been trying to regain my strength and fitness. It's not easy, I can tell you."
Fortunately Rice had something to look forward to. He has always been involved in racing modified cars and Porsches and he was about to take possession of a Chevy Cobra in stunning magnetic blue when the malaria struck. It's a beautiful machine, down to the low growl of its V8 engine, with Rice's name being stencilled in white paint down the side and the team's name - Team Grumpy - appearing on the bonnet. "I wasn't dying before I could race that thing," he says, as he tells the story of his son and son-in-law driving it up from the KwaZulu-Natal South coast for him because he was too weak to do so.
It's moot as to whether Rice was the sleek Corvette, the sturdy family saloon or the low-riding muscle car. He was probably a bit of all three. Rather than his lines, however, it was his engine that powered him into the memory and the imagination - not bad for a cricketer whose pomp coincided almost too neatly with the period of South Africa's isolation.
After making his debut for Transvaal in 1969 as a 20-year-old, he was chosen to go to Australia on the cancelled tour of 1971-72. Twenty years later, just as South Africa were readmitted to the international game, he became the subject of a fevered debate about the composition of South Africa's first ever World Cup side. He had led the team in India four months previously and was so certain of the World Cup captaincy in '92 that he made detailed plans about the composition of the side and how they were going to approach the competition. In the end he was left behind, told he was past it at 42. He compensated for his hollowness by working as a television commentator for his old mate Kerry Packer, a job he found unfulfilling and repetitive.
"My respect for Peter van der Merwe [the convenor of selectors in 1992] was zero from 1985, when Kim Hughes brought his rebel Australians out," said Rice. "I was summoned to a selection meeting before the one-dayers. We argued for two hours and at the end of it I told van der Merwe that he could tell Peter Kirsten and Kenny McEwan and Alan Kourie that they weren't playing because they wanted some guy from Natal.
"Anyway, so we were playing down in Durban and had just won the Test series and the champagne is flowing and the Aussies are in our dressing room. Carl Rackemann sees this piece of paper and grabs it out of van der Merwe's hand and sees Kirsten's name isn't in the one-day squad. Well, pretty quickly the chairs are thrown around and van der Merwe is heading out in disgrace. We lost the first two and then the selectors allowed me the side I wanted. Van der Merwe was so gutless that he wouldn't tell the guys to their faces that they'd been dropped. He said they could hear it on the radio."
With his merry band back in the fold, Rice's team went on to win the one-day series 4-2. As a captain he probably lacked, say, Mike Brearley's thoughtful, easy finesse but Rice was tough, generally loathed administrators and stood his ground on matters of principle to the point of being stubborn. When he was sacked as a player and professional from Nottinghamshire in 1978 for signing Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket deal, he took the county to the Old Bailey and, backed by no fewer than seven Queen's Counsels funded by Packer himself, won the case.
"In the interim the board had signed Richard Hadlee, so now they had four overseas professionals and only two could play," said Rice. "When I was sacked as captain they reappointed a guy called Mike Smedley; he was worse than useless. The only thing he worried about was whether we finished one point above Derbyshire and if he scored 1000 runs in the summer. Halfway through the following season Smedley was sacked again and I was the captain."
The decision to hand the captaincy to Rice again ushered in a golden age for the county. He formed a formidable combination with Hadlee, wonderfully supported by the evergreen Eddie Hemmings, and helped by the emergence, in later years, of players like Tim Robinson, Bruce French and Chris Broad.
The pitch at Trent Bridge always had a covering of grass, and in 1981, their first Championship-winning season since 1929, Rice won the toss on all but one occasion and asked the opposition to bat; in the game where he lost the toss, Leicestershire decided to bat anyway, and they were beaten by eight wickets, Rice and Hadlee sharing eight wickets between them.
After a sluggish start, with draws away to Kent and Middlesex, and the abandonment of the game in Derby against Derbyshire, the season was funnelled to a dramatic end. Notts needed to win their final match, against Glamorgan at home to take the title. As usual there was a good lick of green on the wicket, the pitch having carry and bounce.
"To this day I remember their overseas professional, Norman Featherstone [a fellow South African], looking at the pitch and saying: 'Jesus, how are we going to face Rice and Hadlee on this?' They were 60 all out and we won inside two days by ten wickets. That was a huge moment. I remember Reg Simpson [the former England opener from the 1950s] coming into the dressing room. He shook Richard's and my hands. He couldn't say a word. There were just tears rolling down his cheeks. It was the moment where you suddenly realise what you've achieved."
The season is worth looking at more closely, so large were the deeds. Nottinghamshire were regularly winning at home by eight and nine wickets, with Hadlee finishing top of the bowling averages (105 wickets at 14.89) and Rice in seventh place (65 wickets at 19.20). Rice was fifth in the batting averages, sandwiched between Viv Richards and Peter Kirsten, having scored 1462 runs at 56.23. Hadlee scored his 745 runs at 32.39, including a priceless big hundred against Yorkshire in Bradford. They frequently took the new ball together and presumably bossed their fellow players like teenage brothers herding a group of snotty younger urchins. It must have been demanding to play in the glow of their radiant egos.
"We dragged them up from their bootlaces," says Rice with his customary growl. "We made them all believe they could play a bit better."
Such were the bellicose boys from Trent Bridge that they took on all incoming tourists as well, beating Australia (by an innings), Sri Lanka and India in the time Rice was there, and only losing to West Indies after giving them an early fright. Rice remembers an "embarrassed" West Indies cranking up the heat after being bowled out cheaply, Michael Holding bowling to six slips and a forward short-leg. "I thought if I could just get into line and hit it in front of the wicket, I'd be okay, there were runs on offer - not that it turned out that way."
Without doubt the most punishing cricket Rice ever played was against those self-same West Indians in World Series Cricket. It was hard, unforgiving, and always played under Packer's harshly appraising eye.
"I remember one game at VFL Park in Melbourne - it was one of those drop-in pitches," said Rice. "We won the toss and batted. It was the quickest pitch I've ever played on. They had [Wayne] Daniel, [Joel] Garner and Andy Roberts. We had [Garth] Le Roux, Proccie [Mike Procter], Imran [Khan] and myself. Majid Khan suffered a depressed cheekbone after being hit by Andy Roberts and the ambulance didn't even have time to get a look at him before Greigy ordered us back on again after we were out for just over a hundred. 'We're going to get them back for that,' says Greig, and before you can look, they're 30 for 5. In no time at all, Garner is batting, and we just want to ping the living shit out of him.
"Derek Underwood, who is on for Majid, says to Greig that we don't need two guys out after Majid has been hurt, but no one is listening and I just bounce him. He's like a wounded bear. Not even Collis King, who is the non-striker, is comfortable to ask how he's feeling, and he's the last man 'retired hurt' as they get to about 70 for 9, and we win by 30-odd runs. As we're walking off, I think to myself, 'Now you've done it, Packer's going to be waiting for you in the dressing room, you're out, on the next plane home.' He's there all right but it's to congratulate us: 'That's the best game in the World Series so far,' he says. 'You've put us on the map.'"
Rice found himself on the map in every way but the most important one, never playing a Test for South Africa. He won three out of four World Allrounder competitions, only losing against Imran Khan in Kowloon, while winning in Arundel, Taunton and Hong Kong. His old mate Hadlee could never beat him, despite giving it a good bash. "I know it bugs him," says Rice with a smile.
Such is the curse of his generation that Rice, along with many others, is being touted as the possible recipient of a Heritage Blazer, Cricket South Africa's latest public relations initiative. The very thought of it makes him incandescent. "They give me one of those and I'd just hand it to the waiter at the function," he says, and you have no reason to disbelieve him.
Rice has more important things to think about, after all. He is bald because of the chemotherapy, and on the balance of probabilities it's fair to suggest that his struggles with cancer aren't yet over. Indeed, it recurred again recently, necessitating a dash to Bangalore to receive a cutting edge form of radiation treatment called CyberKnife. All indications are that the treatment in India for Rice's brain tumour was a success, but he will need all his courage and legendary belligerence to fight off a foe easily the equal of anything he ever experienced on the field, whether at Trent Bridge or the Wanderers.
For the time being, there are compensations, whether they come in the form of his wife's love, his cars, or golf. As it happens, his bottom garden abets onto a fairway at his local golf club. "I hate it when they hit a Pinnacle [golf ball] into the garden or the pool by mistake and not a Pro V1x," he smirks. "A Pro V1x is just so much better for my game."
Luke Alfred is a journalist based in Johannesburg