July 10, 2012

Always a fighter

Mark Boucher entered the South Africa team as a brash youngster but soon became an integral part of the side and, despite some low moments, enjoyed a prolific career

Even at the age of 20, Mark Boucher had an attitude. He had just been picked for the national squad having played just 14 first-class matches, ten of them for his provincial first XI. Dave Richardson, who had been almost ever-present since readmission, had broken a finger and Boucher was flown to Pakistan to replace him.

"I am not short of confidence. I have been keeping well and batting well and don't reckon conditions in Pakistan will be too tough," he told reporters before his departure in 1997. "In fact, the conditions over there will probably suit me from a batting point of view because I tend to play the spinners very well."

Boucher began with a bellow. In his second Test, he starred in a record 195-run ninth wicket stand with Pat Symcox against Pakistan at the Wanderers. That stand rescued South Africa from 166 for 8 to a position from which they able to salvage a draw. That day, Boucher showed a fighting spirit that would go on to define him as an international cricketer.

Fifteen years later, as Boucher contemplated retirement, the attitude remained, but the confidence has waned. Since late 2010, he had faced a barrage of pressure to step down. A lean time with the bat and mistakes that he did not usually make behind the stumps all contributed to the negative sentiment surrounding Boucher. He eventually pinned down a retirement date - August 20, 2012, the day his 150th Test was scheduled to be complete. He concluded, "The way I started is the way I want to end."

It was not to be.

Having only started keeping in his final year of school, Boucher has admitted that he was not the most skilled gloveman in the country when he was first picked and had a lot to learn in the early days. It showed on the 1998 tour to England, when he would often be caught on the wrong foot when the ball swung after pitching. He remembered that as the one of the most difficult times in his career, but the way he responded on the return leg was tenacious.

His first Test hundred was scored in tough circumstances, against England. South Africa had been made to follow on in Durban and Gary Kirsten, who set a South African record for the highest individual score, and Boucher combined to ensure they did not lose.

While his performances on the field began to build the walls of respectability, it was actions off it that adorned those walls. When the Hansie Cronje scandal broke, it was Boucher who convinced Herschelle Gibbs to come clean. At the end of the investigation, Judge Edwin King thanked Boucher for his service to South African cricket, and he was made vice-captain of the national side at the age of 23.

Records came rolling in for Boucher: he was the fastest wicketkeeper to 200 catches and then became the ninth batsman to score 3000 runs for South Africa, and he had 300 dismissals to his name. Disappointment also came. He was the man who faced the last ball of the crucial 2003 World Cup match against Sri Lanka - the one that was defended because South Africa thought they had qualified for the next round.

The accomplishments outweighed moment like that, though, and with them came an ego that was thought to be growing so dangerous that Boucher was dropped, after playing 75 consecutive Test matches, in 2004. A run drought aided the selectors' decision but there was some surprise at his exclusion.

His successor then is likely to be his successor now. Thami Tsolekile played the role for three Tests in 2004 but had a torrid time and Boucher was swiftly recalled mid-way through the series against England. There were question marks then over the lack of a clear successor to Boucher, who had already played for seven years, but with his age not a worry, they were ignored.

His most memorable innings was scored in his second coming. The unbeaten half-century against Australia to win the 438 game was the knock that proved to South Africans that anything was possible. To have scored it with his childhood contemporary, Makhaya Ntini, at the other end, who dabbed a single down to third man to allow Boucher to hit the winning runs underlined the sense of belief that South Africa had after that.

The 2008 series against England was probably the one Boucher treasured most. His 45 not out at Edgbaston was one half of the partnership that won the series for South Africa. That innings allowed him to play an integral part in an unprecedented triumph for the national side - their first in England since readmission - and he has often talked about his feelings when scoring those runs.

However, without a Test hundred since 2008, Boucher began to feel time was catching up with him. He was dropped from the one-day side in 2010, after South Africa's tour of the West Indies, when a new era was being ushered in with AB de Villiers behind the stumps. Despite Boucher's desire to play in the 2011 World Cup, he was left out of the squad, but he was recalled to the one-day side when de Villiers suffered an injury that ruled him out of an ODI series against Australia late last year.

Boucher struggled in that contest and knew he needed help, so he called an old mentor, Ray Jennings, who flew to Durban to have one-on-one sessions with him. He also stumbled through the Test series that followed, against Australia and Sri Lanka, and dropped what he called "sitters" against the latter - a sign that the end was not far away.

An uneventful tour of New Zealand followed and then the stage was set for the blaze of glory. Boucher planned to leave "on his own terms". He hoped it would be with the No. 1 ranking for South Africa. Now, the team will have to do it without him.

Boucher's fire has not been put out. Less than 24 hours after surgery he was walking around, talking to his team-mates, albeit groggily, and using his phone to connect with the world. The spunk that he had when he played a squash tournament after recovering from a broken arm as a schoolboy and took it all the way was still there but so was the humility 15 years in the game have taught him. "Ur support for me has brought me to my knees! Can't thank u all enough," he tweeted. "Gonna be tough for me regarding my eye but I will pull through!"

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • on July 11, 2012, 19:01 GMT

    Cricket and it's fans will miss you Mark Boucher ! You are a true fighter !

  • B.C.G on July 11, 2012, 10:28 GMT

    In 2000,he scored another 40 odd runs in quick time on a raging turner to help beat India in Mumbai.That was his best ever 40.

  • on July 11, 2012, 19:01 GMT

    Cricket and it's fans will miss you Mark Boucher ! You are a true fighter !

  • B.C.G on July 11, 2012, 10:28 GMT

    In 2000,he scored another 40 odd runs in quick time on a raging turner to help beat India in Mumbai.That was his best ever 40.

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  • B.C.G on July 11, 2012, 10:28 GMT

    In 2000,he scored another 40 odd runs in quick time on a raging turner to help beat India in Mumbai.That was his best ever 40.

  • on July 11, 2012, 19:01 GMT

    Cricket and it's fans will miss you Mark Boucher ! You are a true fighter !