Mark Boucher September 15, 2009

Iron man

Jon Cardinelli
Twelve years into his international career, South Africa's wicketkeeper is still the epitome of fighting spirit and reliability under pressure

His critics believe he is finished, but does Mark Boucher care? He has dragged South Africa back from the brink on countless occasions, and yet several hacks prefer to focus on his batting average. He is the most accomplished wicketkeeper in Test history, but there are still people calling for a change.

Perhaps Boucher should care, but he doesn't. Perhaps he should feel the need to prove the naysayers wrong, but if he did, he would forego the very quality that makes him special. Boucher is the pressure man, the player for the big occasion. He won't average 50 or hit seven hundreds in a calendar year, but he'll win you games. He'll come across as arrogant in the post-match interview, the lemon-sucking expression accompanied by a curt response to a stupid question. But again, if he repressed this attitude, he'd lose all his clout.

"I first worked with Mark when I was coaching at the Warriors," recalls South Africa coach Mickey Arthur. "He captained the side and I always had faith in his cricketing brain. He was also the kind of leader who was never afraid to have his say, and as a player he was a true fighter.

"Mark's a tiger, and if I went to battle, there's no one I'd rather have beside me. He's fiercely loyal and will never turn down a challenge. He's an invaluable member of our team."

The stats may not reflect Boucher's value when he strolls to the crease, but Arthur admits there are other stat bars that tell a more accurate story, highlighting his game-winning ability.

Boucher's wicketkeeping virtues have never been in doubt. He has 475 scalps in Test cricket and 406 in ODIs - record figures that are set to rise as long as he's fit and favoured. But it's not just his work behind the stumps that has won him acclaim. His batting contributions played a significant part in his winning the South African Cricketer of the Year Award in 1998, 2000 and 2006. He was also named as one of Wisden's five Cricketers of the Year in 2009.

So what does he think about the criticism and the recent calls to step aside? The rise of AB de Villiers has prompted a fierce debate. De Villiers seems set to become one of the batting greats and has the ability to keep wicket. The ingrates reason that, closing in on 33, Boucher needs to make way for the future. But is comparing the two really comparing apples and apples?

"I know it sounds like I'm trying to protect my position, but I just don't think AB should play keeper," Boucher says. "He's too special a batter, and to put pressure on him from a keeping perspective is going to hamper his batting average.

"Most players' batting averages take a dip when they are asked to keep. Kumar Sangakkara wasn't doing well when he was keeping, and I see his average has gone up since he stopped. AB needs to be averaging around 55 at Test level, but he's not going to do that if he has to worry about keeping too."

Boucher's viewpoint is shared by Arthur. There's no plan to replace Boucher with de Villiers, and there's no long-term plan to groom de Villiers as a successor when Boucher eventually calls it a day. "You can't compare AB and Mark because their roles in the team are vastly different," affirms Arthur. "Mark's our best keeper, while AB is in the team as a top-order batsman.

"Mark's a tiger, and if I went to battle there's no one I'd rather have beside me. He's fiercely loyal and will never turn down a challenge. He's an invaluable member of our team"
Mickey Arthur

"In an emergency, we would look to AB to keep wicket, but we don't view him as a successor to Mark. Ultimately AB will bat at No. 4 in both versions of the game. We really want AB to become the best batsman on the planet. It would be unfair to burden him with the keeping responsibilities, as that could cause him to average 10 less than he should. When you have a player of that talent, you don't want to hamper his ability to score.

"We have identified two potential successors in the Dolphins' Darren Smit and the Titans' Heino Kuhn. Both are good keepers and have the ability to chip in with the bat."

Boucher averages less than 30 in both forms of the game, but when he does get going you have to wonder how good he would have been had he given keeping a miss. He has scored five Test centuries and 29 fifties, and his value in the ODI arena is well documented: he has 26 fifties and a sparkling 147 not out to his name. But since his 1997 debut, where he replaced Dave Richardson, it has always been about keeping first. Batting has been important, but only in the team context.

"Mark is first and foremost a wicketkeeper," says Arthur. "I think he has averaged less than he would have had he not worn the gloves, but that's his role. That's not to say we've ever doubted his ability. I can't speak highly enough about what he has done for South African cricket.

"In the Test set-up we usually go with six specialist batters, four specialist bowlers and our best wicketkeeper. From a batting perspective, Mark's role is to marshal the tail.

"In the one-day game Mark has become one of the best finishers in the world. At the end of an innings he can be devastating, whether he's helping us set a formidable target or getting us past the opposition score. He's capable of the big shots, but his experience is so crucial during those knocks. When he's out in the middle, it helps other guys like Albie Morkel."

Boucher admits his personal goals are not that of a normal batter. When he walks down from the dressing room and onto the field, he's thinking about how he can help South Africa. "I never look at averages and stats because they don't really tell a story. Don't get me wrong, I love scoring hundreds, but there are other things you look to achieve when you perform my kind of role.

"I like to bat aggressively and take the bowling on, but I'm a team man. I'll do what the team requires. My average may be a bit lower because of my responsibilities in the team context, but I'm a wicketkeeper-batsman, not a specialist batsman. My goals are not the same as those of an all-out batter.

"There are some knocks I'll never forget, and those are the ones scored under pressure. In one of my first visits to India, we were in a difficult position and I came in and scored 27 not out to help win the game. That was like a century to me because of the conditions and context of the match.

"That Test innings I played at Edgbaston last year was also very special. The series was on the line and although I didn't score much [45 not out], I helped us towards that winning total."

If you are going to measure Boucher's worth, you may as well do it in kilopascals. He has the ability to hit a cricket ball into the stands, but what sets him apart is how calm he is under pressure. "Everyone remembers guys like AB, Graeme Smith and Herschelle Gibbs for that 438 victory [in 2006], but Mark was the guy who got us home," says Arthur. "The ODI win in Sydney this year was thanks to his batting performance, an important innings that allowed us to go to a defining 2-1 lead in the series. Mark's a player capable of hundreds, but he's also capable of playing those momentum-swinging knocks that sometimes prove [to be] the difference."

Fighting spirit is something that's become synonymous with South African cricket. Jonty Rhodes, Allan Donald and Gary Kirsten are just three players who were renowned for it when Boucher first arrived on the scene, and Boucher credits them for contributing to his mental development. But deep steel, according to him, is something you cannot acquire. You either have it or you don't.

"I've played squash since I was very young and I think it has shaped my mentality as a cricketer. Squash is the type of game where you're always fighting for the upper hand, and if you are down, you need to fight hard to come back. You need that fighting spirit to be a good squash player. You need to be a fighter if you're going to deal with that pressure and rise above it. That's what makes you a hardened sportsman, and I believe that's what gave me the base to perform under big pressure in cricket.

"Some people claim to enjoy the pressure. Some people ask me if I enjoy the pressure. Truth be told, I don't think anybody enjoys it. It's more about understanding it and understanding how to beat it. Some people will go into their shells when they're under pressure, while others respond with an aggressive approach."

Richardson was 38 when he retired from international cricket, and while Boucher isn't sure about matching that feat, he's determined to soldier on for as long as he's able. "I will never rest on my laurels and I will never voluntarily give my position away," he says. "That may be the wrong thing to say, but I'm very competitive and I have plenty more years in me. I only think about my goals two years at a time. I definitely have another World Cup in me and I'll decide where to after that.

"My body's still in good shape and I've never told anyone that I'm looking to retire. After the World Cup, I'll be 35, but if I've still got a lot to give, why can't I carry on for another few years?"

"I've played squash since I was very young and I think it has shaped my mentality as a cricketer. You need that fighting spirit to be a good squash player"
Mark Boucher

Boucher had a limited opportunity when South Africa toured Australia back in 1997, but was awarded a full-time position when they travelled to England in 1998. For over a decade South Africa came close to beating England in England, while the same period witnessed a string of failures Down Under. There was a breakthrough in 2008, with South Africa following up a Test series win in England with an unprecedented triumph in Australia. Boucher was at the heart of both victories, and as a seasoned campaigner drew the most satisfaction from the results.

"We'd come close before in England, but because Australia are our arch-rivals and so much is made of beating the best on their own track, the win against the Aussies meant the most. The Proteas have been referred to as a team that choke in big contests, so it was satisfying to prove to the world, and to the Aussies, who initially tagged us as chokers, that we can rise above the pressure."

Boucher has achieved more than most and is by no means finished. However, he's not so arrogant as to believe he'll play forever. A couple of goals remain before he eventually passes the baton. South Africa need to become the undisputed kings of Test cricket, and they need to atone for their past World Cup sins by capturing the crown in 2011.

"The past two years have witnessed a turning point in South African cricket," he says, as if the recent success is an appetiser for things to come. "In any winning team, the key to success is consistency over an extended period.

"Look at the Springbok team that won the 2007 Rugby World Cup. They were together for four years before they won in France. It's not only about building a family, but also about being dynamic and ensuring things continue to develop. That's why Mickey's done extremely well to bring people like Jeremy Snape and Duncan Fletcher into the mix. There's no danger of stagnating.

"I'm very excited to be a part of something so special. We've achieved so much over the past two years, but we haven't fully reached our potential. We can get a lot better and as long as the leadership core remains intact, we will continue to achieve our goals in years to come."

This article was first published in SA Cricket magazine