March 5, 2012

And it's goodbye from Mark

A decade and a half after he first started playing for South Africa, Boucher is ready to hang up his boots

This year Mark Boucher will be home for Christmas.

The thought made him smile. "I'm looking forward to the normal life. I can stay at home for a while and do normal things with my mates and my family. I haven't spent a Christmas at home for 15 years so it will be nice to do that," he said. "It's sad times but good times ahead."

Sad because after a decade and a half of dominating the South African wicketkeeper's role, Boucher is calling it a day - probably after the England series in July. Good because in that time he has built a record that could easily take twice as long to break. Good because he has been part of a South Africa side that has conquered home and away for years and, by the time he retires, could be the No. 1 Test side in the world. Definitely more good than sad, then.

"If it's my time to go then it's my time to go," he said. "If I'm not performing then I'm not performing. If there is a guy that's the same standard as me but he is ten years younger, then I understand that he is going to get the opportunity."

The truth, of course, is that Boucher does not want to say goodbye. Although he has realised he may have no choice, his eyes betray his heart. Usually a fireworks display of feistiness, fight and fervour, his blues were not quite as bright as they usually are when he stood outside the Wanderers change room after the final first-class match of the South African season, which he played in for the Cobras.

His national team-mates had already left for New Zealand, where they went on to win the Twenty20 and ODI series - formats of the game Boucher is no longer part of in international cricket.

"In a perfect world I'd love to still be involved in one-day cricket," he said. "But I also understand Gary [Kirsten] and Andrew Hudson's plans. They are obviously trying to move forward and build for the next World Cup." It's a World Cup Boucher's long-time friend Jacques Kallis has targeted but that Boucher has had to shelve thoughts of taking part in.

Like another of his old mates Makhaya Ntini, he may continue to play franchise cricket. "It's been nice to come back to the Cobras, get some runs behind my name and just relax and enjoy the game for what it is. I've come to the realisation that everything is going to end sometime and I might as well really enjoy it. In the last two games, I started relaxing a bit more and going out there and playing my natural game."

Boucher was part of the Cobras side that topped the SuperSport series table until the final round, and he scored a century, his first in many months, in their draw with the Knights. The innings acted as a major reassurance that he still had the ability to perform with the bat after he endured his worst season since 1998 last year.

Boucher described it as "pretty hard". "This last little section was a big up and a big down," he said. "I had a really good Test match in Centurion [against Sri Lanka] and then I didn't keep too well in difficult conditions in Durban." Boucher scored his second half-century in six Tests and took eight catches in South Africa's innings win in that first match but fared poorly in their defeat in Durban, with bat and gloves.

He hoped the New Year's Test in Cape Town would buoy him, as it had in 2011, when he scored a career-prolonging fifty. "My confidence was really low going there but I was looking forward to bat on the flattest wicket that we've batted all summer, and then I didn't get a chance to bat," he said. "I dropped two sitters that I should have taken, and I probably would take every day of the week, but that's what pressure and lack of confidence does to you. A couple of other things creep into your head that shouldn't really be there, like what people are saying about you. You've got to take that stuff and hide it as best as you can."

Hiding it has always been Boucher's specialty even as he faced mounting criticism from the media and the public. Recently, though, it has started to affect him. "It gets to you mentally and that drags on to you physically as well," he said. "You keep trying so hard and you find yourself almost sinking. The harder you try, the deeper you go down.

"I've spoken to a lot of players who are coming to the end of the career and they said that naturally it starts to happen: you start to question - where am I going to go after this - and you start caring about what people are saying."

"A couple of other things creep into your head that shouldn't really be there, like what people are saying about you. You've got to take that stuff and hide it as best as you can"

His usually hard exterior has softened, especially when the people pointing fingers were those he respected. "I'm human. As much you can say don't let what commentators are saying and what past players are saying affect you, those are the people that, when they do say something, it probably sticks in your head a little bit," he said.

He has been seen seeking advice from various quarters. When he was asked to stand in for the injured AB de Villiers in the ODIs against Australia in October, he asked former South Africa coach Ray Jennings to fly to Durban to give him one-on-one coaching sessions. Before the Newlands against Sri Lanka, he was in many a conversation with Paddy Upton.

What eventually helped was getting away from the glare, in the first-class set-up, where the only people watching were a smattering of wives, cricket tragics and die-hard media, and he could simply find himself again.

It also allowed him to work with Richard Pybus, who coached him as a schoolboy at Selbourne College and at his first provincial team, Border. "Richard probably knows my game best because he has been there from the start," Boucher said, smiling when he realised he had come full circle. "Funny enough, at beginning of my career he was there and now at the end, he is there again."

It's an end that Boucher is now willing to speak about and a career he can reflect on comfortably. He recalled his original struggles with striking a balance between keeping and batting. "When I first started I was batter who could keep a bit. When I got picked for South Africa, Bob Woolmer said to me that I had to work on my keeping, so my batting took a bit of a dive," he said. "Then, once your keeping gets to a nice standard, you go back to your batting and maybe your keeping takes a bit of a dip. It is quite difficult to do both because keeping is a very strenuous job. What I can say is that usually if you bat well, you tend to keep well. If you go through a bit of a slump, the keeping also suffers, which can be quite tough in different conditions."

Some of the most difficult of those, he said, were in the West Indies. "Ian Healy said West Indies was the tour that probably killed him off. I can see why because the wickets are really tough to keep on."

He can also talk about the best times, knowing he helped South Africa achieve some of their highest highs. "[The series win in] Australia was fantastic, but for me, England," he said. "I was largely involved in the whole thing, especially at Edgbaston with that last partnership with Graeme [Smith]. That to me will stand out as my best Test series win." Boucher scored 40, and then an unbeaten 45 in a 112-run stand with Smith as South Africa chased down 281 to take an unassailable 2-0 lead in the four-match series.

He says the Australians and the English have been the toughest opposition. "You know that you are in a serious battle against them and that's the way you enjoy it. When you perform in those matches, you feel really good about yourself as a player and as a person because you've overcome the hardships that those two sides can give to you."

Now the battle is reaching its end and Boucher wants to exit as a fighter. "Everyone's got a strategy that they'd like to leave at their own time. Ultimately, I want to end off playing my natural game. The way I started is the way I want to end."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent