The innings that could save Mark Boucher's career
In August this year, Mark Boucher revealed his hurt about being dropped from the South African one-day team. Many thought he saw the snub as something frivolous, like misplacing a five Rand coin in a pair of jeans with deep pockets. He didn't. He said he felt as though he had "been fired from his job" and that he would do everything in his power to show that he is good enough to get that job back.
As yet, he hasn't been able to reclaim the position and things almost became even worse when he began flirting with losing his other job, in the Test side. He had scored just 17 runs in three innings in the current series against India and when Boucher came out to bat on Wednesday, there were murmurs around Newlands that it could well be his last Test innings. So began an almighty fight, to prove the detractors wrong, to get South Africa into a comfortable position in the match and to save his own career.
The tussle was about as pretty to watch as it is to observe a bulldozer mechanically going about tearing a monstrous building to shreds. That was the size of the doubt that Boucher had to break down. Although it was large and looming, it wasn't all unfair. Before this match, in the previous six Tests he played, Boucher had averaged 20.00, well below his career average of 30.70. Some of the criticism levelled against him was unwarranted because, just a season ago, against England, Boucher's three half-centuries earned him the joint man-of-the-series award. Unfortunately, people don't seem to remember that and care more that his last Test century against a team other than Bangladesh came against West Indies more than seven years ago.
The hundreds don't, and shouldn't, matter much to Boucher, who comes in to bat after one of the strongest top six in world cricket. It's when the dry patches start grouping to form a desert and the hoarse cries of people calling for his head get louder, that the anxiety develops. Recently, he has been in fairly barren territory. But, he has shown immense bouncebackability throughout his career and he has had the luxury of time in which to do that.
This may have been the first occasion when it might have seemed like time was running out. With the next Test series scheduled for nine months away, Boucher must have felt an internal ticking to the beat of now or never. He came out with South Africa 130 for 6, and had he fallen early and opened the window to the tail, it would have swung the series heavily in India's favour.
Instead, he starred in a partnership that may end up being the one that wins the series. Boucher's 55 may look like a side-show in comparison to Kallis' undefeated 109, and it was. The real showstopper wasn't either of their innings but the century-stand the two great friends put on because it may prove to be South Africa's saviour. Boucher was geared up for a big task before he even reached the crease. "I came out with an aggressive mindset," Boucher said. The intent was there but the action took seven balls to kick in as he coped with being beaten once and then spent some time defending.
The early stages were the most difficult for Boucher, not because of the conditions, but because of the hostile atmosphere he walked into. "When you get to the crease and the pressure is on and there is a lot of chirping around, it can be quite difficult." Given Boucher's usually bullish personality, one would expect that he was the type to soak up the tension and use it as fuel to endure. Boucher admitted that isn't always the case. "I don't think there is anyone who loves to bat under pressure. I think there are certain people who handle it better."
He absorbed the anxiety well and after three boundaries upfront settled into a rhythm with Kallis, which not only quietened the field but calmed the batsmen's nerves. "We managed to turn the strike around a lot, especially against Harbhajan [Singh] who was bowling well and that made things easier for both of us."
Boucher's elation and relief came only after tea, when he brought up his half-century. At that point the match was edging further in South Africa's favour, with the lead at 223. Boucher's career had found a lifeboat. He was being hailed as the one who overcame the rough seas and found calmer water for the South African second innings to stay afloat in. Kallis was the brave captain of the ship, battling through pain; Boucher was the rower with the oar in hand, every pierce of the water guiding them closer to the shore. He ground out runs on a difficult batting track as though he knew it was the only thing that would redeem him.
This is the innings that will be remembered when the squad is picked to face Australia later in the year. It's the character that Boucher showed that will probably see him secure a spot for that series and not that fact that there are doubts over AB de Villiers' ability to don the wicket-keeping gloves for prolonged periods or that there is no clear successor being groomed for Boucher. It means that he has wrestled back not just his place but the right to call it his place.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent