November 4, 2013

The Boucher culture

For the 15 years he played for South Africa, Mark Boucher epitomised team spirit. He talks about the good days, the tough days, and the legless nights

One of cricket's less documented traditions is the "fines meeting" that takes place in many dressing rooms at the conclusion of anything from a club game to a Test series. Essentially it is a drinking game that acts as a bonding session, in which members of the team are "fined" for mistakes on the field. The fine is paid by downing a beer or several. Other "punishments" are thought up for non-drinkers.

Mark Boucher was the chairman of South Africa's fines meetings during his career, and it was a job he took seriously. The night of the 438 game, he was in particularly good form and dished out plenty of fines to his team-mates.

The chairman is often fined too, under an "anti-fines" protocol. Boucher had hit the winning runs in the game and ended with an unbeaten 50, which made him a prime candidate to receive some of his own medicine.

"When we came back to the hotel, I was already not feeling too good, but we were all still celebrating. We met in the bar, where Brett Lee had his guitar out, and there were some good tunes going and a few drinks."

At some point in the early hours of the morning, Boucher left the group to go to the bathroom. "I was walking there and I just slipped and fell on the floor. I knew I'd had enough and it was time to go to my room," he said. "I got to the lift and I fell over again. And I just sat on the floor of the lift."

The elevators at the Sandton Sun - the hotel used by South African cricket in Johannesburg - are made of glass. Boucher's team-mates and the Australian squad watched him go "up and down and up and down for 45 minutes while other guests got in and out of the lift. It was great entertainment for them."

Eventually Lee took pity on Boucher and helped him to his room. "Everyone had a good laugh about it the next day and the day after that, and whenever we talk about that game, we still laugh about it. That's the kind of team culture we had," Boucher said.

Group spirit is one of the things that define team sports. It plays an important part in how individual members interact with and understand each other, and it helps build relationships. Seemingly juvenile activities like fines meetings are ways to bond and are how team leaders who are not captain, like Boucher, influence their team-mates.

Boucher led South Africa in four Tests and one ODI but never wanted the armband permanently. Yet he was the heartbeat of the South African team for nearly all the 15 years he played international cricket, and he was responsible for blooding young players.

"I had quite a domineering personality, to the point where I guess some people found me quite irritating. But I was old-school like that. I expected people to do everything with the team and I didn't want guys to be like kids. I wanted them to man up."

Boucher wanted others to learn that fitting into the team is always about putting others first. As Ed Cowan wrote last week, there is always a need for a sports team to be able to "extract more than the sum of its parts", and that's a truth Boucher wants cricketers to understand. "It's never about yourself, it about playing for the team."

In just his second Test match, Boucher starred in a record ninth-wicket stand with Pat Symcox against Pakistan. That told him he had what it took to make it to the top, but it wasn't until 26 Tests later - by which time he had been on a tour of England, in which he admits he "dropped absolutely everything", and had scored two Test centuries - that he felt he had proved how far he was willing to go for the collective.

South Africa were chasing a modest target of 163 against India in Mumbai in 2000, but were making heavy weather of the chase. Shaun Pollock was the sixth man out on 128 and it was up to Boucher to prevent the tail from having to get the team over the line. He made 27 off 32 balls, and regards that contribution as the most important one in his Test career.

"You need a lot of things for team culture. You need maturity, an understanding of different cultures and different people, and you need honesty, but you also need to feel as though you are good enough"

"I will never forget that feeling when the match was won and Allan Donald rushed on to the field and lifted me up," he said. "Donald was one of my heroes and to see him come out to me like that really gave me a sense of belonging. I felt the team believed in me and saw what I could do. I felt like I was the man they would want around in a tricky situation."

Boucher was batting with his best mate, Jacques Kallis, at the time and that partnership was one of the many memories one of cricket's great pairs of friends shares. The two are inseparable, but Boucher acknowledged the potential problems caused by extra-close bonds.

"There's definitely some people you will relate to more than others and those will be the people you can maybe joke around with a bit more, be able to have a bit more give and take with, and it helps create a kind of brotherhood. But you don't close off. You have to have a camaraderie with everyone."

Kallis and Boucher have lived each other's successes and disappointments for years and one of their shared missions was the quest to get Kallis to his first double-hundred. Kallis had come close on a few occasions in the early years of his career - 160 against New Zealand, an unbeaten 189 against Zimbabwe, and 177 against West Indies - but couldn't seem to get over the line.

In 2007, he was even offered an incentive. Johan Rupert, a South African businessman who owns the Leopard Creek golf course near Kruger National Park, called Kallis in Karachi after day one of the first Test against Pakistan. Kallis was on 118 and Rupert told him that if he managed a double-hundred, he would give him lifetime membership at the course.

Kallis was caught behind off Danish Kaneria for 155 the next morning. No one was more disappointed than Boucher. "He said if I got membership, then he could play at Leopard Creek for free too," Kallis explained.

Three years later, Rupert made Kallis the same offer when he was 102 overnight against India in Centurion. At lunch on day three, Kallis was on 182, and as he walked up the stairs to the change room, he was met by a stern Boucher. "Don't **** it up this time," Boucher told him. "I was so nervous I could barely eat lunch," Kallis said.

He went out after the break with half an eye on the dressing room. "After every run, I'd look up and see Bouch clapping and nodding," Kallis said. Then, he was into the 190s and Boucher was almost on his feet. A single, a couple and a four took him within one shot, and then he glanced one to fine leg and played a golf swing in celebration.

The pair has since played at Leopard Creek many times. Boucher was awarded a membership of his own after he retired. "Johan told Bouch, 'You know, if you had got 1000 Test dismissals then I would given you membership too,'" Kallis said. "And Bouch piped up with, 'But I do have one Test wicket bowling, so it is 1000.' And that's how he got the membership."

Boucher's ability to have an answer for everything is what helped make him the man who defined South Africa's team culture. He always had the confidence to strike the first verbal blow against the opposition and the wit to bite back when needed. There was a time in his career, in late 2004, when the hard-arse attitude was not welcome and Boucher was dropped, partly because the administrators thought he was getting too big for his boots. Cut down to size, he came back with a little less machismo and a little more maturity.

He still believed in carving out a team identity but he understood that could only happen if the foundation was built on success. South Africa were going through a middling period at that time, having lost a Test series at home to England, and with the scars of the 2003 World Cup still fresh. They had to rebuild, and Boucher was one of the men who led that charge.

"You need a lot of things for team culture. You need maturity, you need an understanding of different cultures and different people, and you need honesty, but you also need to feel as though you are good enough. Until the day you perform, as an individual and as a team, you won't feel that," Boucher said. "Everything snowballs from success."

Personally, he went through a lean patch immediately after that but he kept the collective success in mind. "I remembered something Jonty Rhodes told me. He said that in times like that you have to forget about yourself and play for the team. Don't look at the scoreboard where your name is, look at the team total, go to the nets and throw for the other guys, help them become better and things will come right for you as well."

In the years that followed, although South Africa didn't win the World Cup, they triumphed in ODIs routinely and began their climb to No. 1 on the Test rankings. Boucher was with them through a lot of that time, including when they won series in England and Australia for the first time since readmission, and he rates the latter as the most significant victory of his career.

"We used to go to Australia and just get beaten, tour after tour. So to finally go there and win was absolutely amazing." Boucher was one of the supporting actors in that series. He scored a half-century in the Test South Africa lost in Sydney and was immaculate behind the stumps.

By the time South Africa returned to Australia four years later, Boucher had retired. He had intended to call it a day after the 2012 tour of England, but fate had other plans. His eye injury, which has still not healed, forced him out of the game and into other pursuits. He is not far from the team's thoughts, though. They support his charity projects and keep his philosophy alive.

The Boucher way of doing things is to never give up, and he is pleased to see the team did that as recently as in their Test series against Pakistan. "There was no panic, even after they lost the first match," he said. "And that's because they have a lot of self-belief and a strong team culture."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent