The men who couldn't replace Boucher
During his 14 years in possession of the South Africa wicketkeeper's gloves Mark Boucher has established a personal empire over the berth. No other player has seriously threatened to displace him from the national side; most who tried fell by the wayside, their growth stunted.
Some went away, like Nic Pothas and Kruger van Wyk. Others, like Wendell Bossenger and Ahmed Omar, were let down by the system. A few, like Thami Tsolekile and Morne van Wyk, have stayed and are still plugging away, hoping for a chance to challenge the champion again. The reality is that not one of them has stood out as a likely successor.
Not that Boucher himself felt that way. "It was like being in a bubble that you don't want to burst," he told ESPNcricinfo. "I never took anything for granted, and I knew that to keep my place I had to perform all the time. I never felt that my spot in the side was cemented."
It's that belief in the impermanence of his spot that pushed Boucher to stay above the competition. "I was criticised big time when I started. People thought Nic Pothas should have taken over. I had a good season with the bat then, but I knew my keeping wasn't up to scratch."
In 1997, Pothas was Boucher's only direct competition, and he had the support of many pundits. For five years after that, Pothas stayed in South Africa, but as Boucher got bigger and better and Pothas' opportunities smaller, he packed up. He joined Hampshire in 2002 and qualified for England five years later. By then he was 34, competing with the likes of Matt Prior, Chris Read and Geraint Jones, and his international future had all but disappeared. His county career is coming to its end, but with distinction. He has scored over 800 runs in every one of the eight seasons he has spent at Hampshire, and is currently being rewarded with a benefit year.
As Pothas was on the brink of sailing off, Kruger van Wyk was making his debut. Only a little over five feet, Kruger was the embodiment of dynamite in a small package. He came from the assembly line of adept sportsmen at the Afrikaans Hoer Seunskool (Affies) and was in the same team as AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis and Jacques Rudolph. "We really created something special during an era at Affies where we were very keen to dominate cricket at schoolboy level, and we had some great players," he said.
Kruger van Wyk was the spirit of Northerns Cricket for seven years, known for his athleticism, effervescence and enthusiasm. "It was my job to be energetic, to be very neat, to be able to make a difference and try and win games with the gloves and the bat when the opportunity presented itself." He was a stylish batsman, a hard worker, and a natural with the gloves. He was picked for South Africa A on several occasions but was never able to make the leap up to the national side. "I knew Boucher was doing very well, and I knew that it would be very hard to get a chance while he was there. It might just be a case of being in the right place at wrong time."
In July 2006, Kruger followed his coach Dave Nosworthy and ex team-mate Johann Myburgh to New Zealand. "I saw a great opportunity for me to be challenged in a new environment, and it was a chance I just couldn't say no to. I wanted to test my skills in different conditions." Kruger admits that while he was playing in South Africa's franchise system, "Boucher was the man for the job" at national level. He couldn't see a way in so he went out to avoid having the door banged shut on him.
Bossenger was not so fortunate. He played his cricket in Kimberley, for Griqualand West, a small team in small place, which made it difficult to get noticed. Despite averaging in the high 30s for most of his first-class career, he was frozen out of professional cricket when the franchise system formed in 2004-05. Griquas merged with Free State to form the Eagles, and Bossenger was not contracted.
"It was hard at the time, but you can't be bitter about it," he said. "I was 27 then and I had to make a decision - am I going to chase this and look for another franchise, or go in another direction?" He chose not to go on the prowl for a place elsewhere. Griquas were then reduced to an amateur side and Bossenger operated as a player-coach. "I felt I had a lot to give and so I tried to mentor people." He currently works as coach of the Griquas side and the CSA colts, and is content with the way things panned out.
Bossenger said he was told by friends that perhaps the reason for his exclusion when the Eagles were formed had something to do with race, and that he lost out on a contract because the franchises felt compelled to sign up a certain number of players of colour. He said that if that was the case, he did not mind. "At that stage transformation was the most important thing in South African cricket, much more important than me getting a franchise contract."
Bossenger's reference to race carries no animosity. Instead it has the understanding of the very real problems South Africa faces, not just in sport. There is a definite and much-needed push, to give opportunities to people from previously disadvantaged backgrounds, but the application sometimes goes awry, as Omar claims happened in his case.
Omar toured with Boucher at the Under-19 level, and was touted as the next best thing to hit Gauteng cricket. He was contracted by the team and played under coach Ray Jennings but was dropped after one first-class game, in which he took three catches. He was brought back into the side in 2003-4, and played sporadically for the next two years, despite being a contracted player.
"I was never given any answers for what was happening," he said. "I wrote letters to the board and the selection panel but every time I questioned what was happening I was told I had an attitude problem. I felt the administration was dishonest at the time and they set me up to fail."
Omar walked away from cricket completely to concentrate on his security business. His tales reek of sourness and were it not for the well-documented racial problems at Gauteng cricket, they would have just come across as complaints from a bitter man.
Gauteng can redeem themselves with Tsolekile, who they rescued from an office job in the Cape to help revive his career. Tsolekile, who is also a national hockey player, came closest to replacing Boucher when he toured India in 2005, when Boucher was dropped from the side. But after three Tests, Tsolekile was deemed not good enough. "I thought I was fully ready at the time, but in hindsight I wasn't. Boucher was the better all-round cricketer," he said.
Tsolekile wanted to work on his batting, but in a formidable Western Province (WP) line-up he was never able to bat higher than seven or eight. "We had guys like Jacques Kallis and Ashwell Prince in the side, so there was no opportunity to bat higher," he said. He became known as an exciting lower-order player, not a hardworking grinder like Boucher. In 2007 he lost his contract with the Cobras because of "personality problems" with the then-coach, Shukri Conrad. He took up a job in the WP Cricket Association administration department but "at 27, I didn't want to sit in an office".
Gauteng approached him two seasons ago to play for their franchise, the Lions, and he has since moved to Johannesburg, where he has captained the franchise, the South African A side, and excelled with the bat. "If I didn't still have ambition to play for South Africa, I wouldn't be playing for the Lions," he said.
Like Tsolekile, Morne van Wyk is also still playing, and he still believes he has a few years to give to the national team. Having been a part of the World Cup squad, Morne is positive about his chances of playing more regularly for South Africa because of his experience as a top-order batsman. "If you have a keeper who can bat higher up the order, you have the option of playing an extra allrounder or bowler," he said.
Having been a professional cricketer for the last 14 years, Morne said he has been able to evolve with the process of wicketkeeping and so understands its nuances well. "In the old days the keeper was the guy who had to shout and scream a bit behind the stumps. But now he is one of the leaders of the team. He has to have a good cricket brain and be a lot more involved in the game, much like a catcher in baseball."
Currently the person who is able to do that best is still Boucher. "The hunger is still there," he said. "I have been training really hard and I'm the fittest I've ever been. I have not given up on playing for South Africa in all formats."
That should be taken as a warning by those eyeing a berth in the limited-overs formats, like Heino Kuhn, Davy Jacobs and Daryn Smit. They have to knock down the champion before they stand a chance, and as Bossenger put it, "It should be that difficult to play for South Africa."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent