'It's not about cricket any more'
It was after 11pm on Monday night when the South African squad left Musgrove Park hospital in Taunton, leaving behind a team-mate who was part of the national set-up before most of them had played domestic cricket, let alone for their country. The only one who beat Mark Boucher to an international cap, Jacques Kallis, as well as the captain Graeme Smith stayed behind.
Just two days earlier, Boucher had emerged from the dressing room at the ground in Taunton with boxing gloves on. He spent half an hour in the outfield training with Rob Walter, the squad's conditioning coach. Boucher was impressive in everything he did, he moved quickly, he struck out hard but the most noticeable thing was his expression of pure concentration and determination. He wore a look that said how much he wanted to be on this England tour.
In March, Boucher spoke to ESPNcricinfo about his decision to retire after this series. He emphasised that he wanted to leave after a successful last visit, with South Africa at the top of the Test rankings, and remembered how his toughest battles have been fought on pitches in England. Little he did know, the toughest was yet to come and it would be one he would not win.
When Imran Tahir took his first wicket on the tour, the resulting flying bail caused something far more serious than just broken stumps. Boucher went down immediately and there was no team celebration. Instead, the eleven closed in to see an unfamiliar clear fluid coming out of his eye. The medical staff spent a few minutes treating Boucher pitch-side before they were ready to take him off the field, but after a few steps, he stumbled. Dizziness had already set in.
While South Africa's bowlers tried to concentrate on their tour match, news began coming in of Boucher's condition. From the outset, it sounded as though he would need surgery but the injury was not initially described as career-ending. Comparisons were made between Boucher and the rugby player, Brad Barritt, who had a lacerated eyeball during the recent England tour of South Africa. Barritt underwent what he called "minor" surgery and returned to play less than two weeks later.
As the afternoon grew longer, concerns over Boucher's condition became graver. When Mohammed Moosajee, the team manager, came to an impromptu press conference after the day's play, he was a different person to the one people have come to know over the last decade.
Moosajee, who has also acted as team doctor, has dealt with many injuries in the past from Smith's broken hand in Australia to Hashim Amla's broken box in New Zealand. He has spoken about those wounds candidly and without much fuss.
This time, Moosajee looked grim. He spoke about Boucher's injury as "severe." Although he had to wait for a final diagnosis, he doubted Boucher would be ready for the first Test. His tone told of worse, that he was sure Boucher would not play in England this time and even that he might never play again. "We are concerned with Mark Boucher the patient and not the cricketer," he said.
Allan Donald, who spoke briefly after the first day's play, already sounded resigned to being without Boucher. He called it a "massive loss," and told how Boucher had worked hard, especially on his fitness, in the lead up to the series. His sparring session on Sunday and his distinctly leaner looks were testament to that.
In a show of solidarity, the squad went to the hospital and waited as Boucher went into surgery and came out three hours later. "The guys wanted to show support for him because if the situation was reversed, he would have been the first one there for them," Moosajee said. Kallis and Smith, Boucher's closest friends, remained behind to get as much information as they could.
Around midnight, the squad was told that Boucher would be ruled out of the series. It was a sombre meeting in which a few tears were shed. The South Africans then had to prepare for another day of cricket and all except Kallis went to the ground to resume their duties as normal. Kallis stayed in the hotel with Boucher, where the wicketkeeper made the decision he had been keeping at bay for almost two years.
Another press conference was called, this time on the field with Smith, Kallis, Gary Kirsten and Moosajee. Smith pulled a folded piece of paper out of his pocket and read Boucher's statement. Kallis stood next to him, expressionless. Smith's words were few but strong.
"We all know what he's meant to us as a person and his stats speak for themselves," Smith said. "If you add that to the type of person he is, he will go down as one of the greats of the game. But now we are more worried about Mark the person and getting him through this situation."
The message from the management centred on the health of Boucher, who has yet to learn if he will have sight in his left eye again. For Kallis, it was a rude reminder of the world outside of sport. "It's not about cricket any more," he said. "It's about a mate and hoping he recovers fully. It puts cricket and life into perspective. It's been a very tough 24 hours not only for myself but for his family and team-mates. All we can do is be there and support. He's in good hands and he has all of our well wishes as well as from people around the world."
Boucher will return home on Tuesday night, escorted by Moosajee but his departure will have wider effects on the South African squad, most of whom have never played a series without Boucher. "Guys are fluctuating at the moment," Moosajee said. "It's all going to hit home and there is a very human element to it. They're professional sportsmen though. Although most of them would rather not have played today, they know Boucher would love nothing more than for us to play well in England as a whole."
The immediate impact of Boucher's retirement will be to the balance of the team. AB de Villiers has been named as the replacement wicketkeeper in the squad and both Kirsten and Donald have said he play in that role in the first Test. The national selectors though, have declined to confirm anything, except that they will announce a replacement on Wednesday. What they will not be able to replace is the Boucher way, which Smith hopes to continue growing in the squad.
"I don't think you can replace Mark Boucher. That's not what we're trying to do," Smith said. "We're trying to respect what he's given us and hopefully play with him in our hearts and minds through the next few years. He's created a legacy for a lot of us to be a part of and to look up to. We need to respect what he's done for our country and be proud of that. Things happened yesterday and his reality has changed. But as people we are trying to stand by him and help him through this process.
"We are people first and cricketers second, so there's naturally going to be emotion around this subject. But we're a very professional team and Mark was very adamant that our focus needs to be on playing cricket and doing well. We need to deal with the emotion initially and build to the first Test. That's our goal and that's how Mark Boucher would have played the game."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent