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Mark Boucher and the alternative history of South Africa's champion side

His statement, and the testimony of others at the social justice hearings, has shed light on historic systemic failures in South African cricket

Osman Samiuddin
Osman Samiuddin
Boucher has apologised for referring to Paul Adams in derogatory terms in a song sung in the dressing room  •  Stu Forster/Getty Images

Boucher has apologised for referring to Paul Adams in derogatory terms in a song sung in the dressing room  •  Stu Forster/Getty Images

Personally it was never easy to warm to Mark Boucher, in some small part because he didn't seem to care whether he was liked or not. To like, or not, was not the point. It became a little easier to look past his bristling presence as South Africa grew into the side they became in the late 2000s, a champion team under the maturing leadership of Graeme Smith, and also more likable because of men such as Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn; in their reflected light, Boucher also found reprieve. The sad and unfortunate end to his playing career brought a little more grace.
But for a long time there was undeniably something of the bully about him, captured note perfect in this sledging of Tatenda Taibu in a hopelessly mismatched Test against Zimbabwe in March 2005.
"That's a big shot, Tatenda," he chirped as Taibu gently drove one to a short cover.
"You wanna get out now because I think you might be averaging single figures on this tour," before a pause, and some mocking magnanimity: "I'll walk you to the changing room as well."
He then asked Taibu whether his average was 9 or 10 before deciding "maybe 9.5 so we'll give you 10".
The substance itself was not offensive, but the idea that sledging that Zimbabwe side served any useful purpose was very Cobra Kai. Taibu was leading a desperately weakened Zimbabwe, about to slide to a second three-day innings defeat. Moreover, Boucher was part of a South Africa side that, at that point, was not nearly as good as it thought it was. It was no contest, was never going to be, and here was Boucher sticking it into men defeated long before they stepped on to the field. Say what you want about karma, but Taibu and Boucher retired from Tests on the same day and Taibu ended with a batting average 0.01 higher than Boucher's (30.31 to 30.30).
People change, some not as much as we'd like, others not as little as we'd assume, but it is this old Boucher - or at least the whiff of him - that has been felt through Cricket South Africa's Social Justice and Nation-Building (SJN) hearings in recent weeks.
Those hearings have primarily been a cleanse, a release of a lot that has felt pent up in South African cricket. Inadvertently and in some instances, they may become a kind of reckoning. It is entirely fitting not only that Dumisa Ntsebeza, the ombudsman presiding over it, began by quoting James Baldwin - "Not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed until it is faced" - but that he was one of those who presided over South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the fall of apartheid.
Testimonies have been equal parts harrowing, compelling and revealing. First came Omar Henry, South Africa's first player of colour, and as wise as his years. His treatment at the 1992 World Cup can be seen as a foreshadowing of South Africa's pained grappling with the selection of non-white players since. And his testimony set the tone for those that have followed.
Player after player, black or of colour, has told stories of exclusion, of racist behaviour (imagine, as a black player, having your face painted white by a coach because you had dirty boots), of feeling unwelcome in predominantly white sides, of entire careers ruined. Perhaps in some cases valid cricketing reasons meant players who happened to be black missed out. But the weight of these testimonies cannot be borne by these exceptions. These accounts, angry and heartbreaking and essential, speak of a systemic failure.
They are also reminders of the vexed challenges of transformation, often forgotten because South Africa have been, for much of the modern age, a winning side. There's bound to be debris from juggling to ensure selection be merit-based and ticks transformation boxes. The debris is Ashwell Prince being called "quota player" by team-mates. The debris is Khaya Zondo's stalled career. The debris is the regret the former selector Hussein Manack will have to live with, for not standing his ground on Zondo's selection. If CSA has stumbled in handling these and other cases, it's worth remembering that there aren't precedents it can easily replicate. South African rugby perhaps, but - at the risk of stating the obvious - it is not a like-for-like comparison.
Boucher's name has come up repeatedly, in relation to him being part of the infamous white clique that ran the side, but also in incidents and tales that speak of the culture of exclusion of black and coloured players. One of the most appalling stories was of Paul Adams, nicknamed "brown s**t", who in team meetings after wins, would be the subject of the team song: "Brown s**t in the ring, tra la la la la la."
Times change. Conversations about racism now are of a different nature - and necessarily so - than as recently as a decade ago. More enlightened for one. More divisive for another, though in being staunchly, proactively anti-racist it's always worth remembering racists are not here as part of some debating society. But for all the change, for all the retrospective reassessments of racist behaviour, there could never have been a time when it was okay for a team to sing that song. Least of all a team representing South Africa, in the post-apartheid era.
Think of the skewed dynamic here: power as a function of a society with a racist past and racism as a function of power. Adams is in this team of predominantly white players and naturally he wants to fit in because it is a team and he so badly wants to feel a part of it that it wasn't until his wife (then his girlfriend) pointed out to him that it was not right that he twigged it.
Boucher admitted he sang along. He apologised for it and has offered to meet players who felt excluded to mend those relationships. There is something to Boucher's claim that the players were naïve and ill-equipped to deal with the environment they were in post-apartheid; today, nearly two decades on, it seems a gross dereliction of duty that CSA didn't, as Boucher claims, conduct any awareness training, or culture workshops for players coming into the environment. Post-apartheid wasn't just going to happen by itself. But at the time, sensitivity training, diversity and inclusion were not part of widespread public conversations.
The fatalist counter to this is that if players need training workshops to learn not to sing those songs, or to not use offensive terminology about South Africans of Indian heritage in front of Prince (whose wife is of Indian origin) or Goolam Rajah, the team's long-time, much respected manager, then no amount of training will ever really be enough.
Boucher acknowledging his role in that era's culture does not absolve him. It is the first step: of how many and towards what is not clear in specific detail, but in broad outline, towards a better, more equal and transparent space.
Those songs weren't sung alone, and neither was Boucher the only one because of whom players felt discriminated against. Other names have cropped up during the hearings, many of them integral contributors to that great South Africa side. The legacy of that team is undergoing a revision as we speak, although maybe the optimistic way to see it is as a necessary correction. These hearings are the alternative history of that side, the alternative history of South African cricket as a whole, post-apartheid.
Or, in the far more eloquent words of Zondo, from his testimony: "Privilege often makes equality seem like oppression. For equality to come into place, people need to strip themselves of privilege so they can see other people's experiences."

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo