x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 16 December 2017

Career of Mark Boucher from trash talker to fine wicketkeeper

The South African may have divided opinion, but a forced end to his career after an on-field accident is tragic.

Mark Boucher is Test cricket's most successful wicketkeeper in terms of dismissals. Duif du Toit / Getty Images
Mark Boucher is Test cricket's most successful wicketkeeper in terms of dismissals. Duif du Toit / Getty Images

There is no reason to remember the second Test between South Africa and Zimbabwe at Centurion in March 2005.

South Africa won casually, by an innings, despite three of their four fast bowlers going off injured on the first day.

Zimbabwe's side was among the weakest to have ever played Tests, decimated by politics and the defection of an entire XI. Four heavy losses later that year and they would eventually withdraw from Test cricket altogether.

But it was the Test that came to mind when, within a day of one another, Mark Boucher and Tatenda Taibu retired from cricket. Neither did anything of real note but they were protagonists in the one moment that, even through the haze of time, might be lodged in some memories.

Taibu was batting in the second innings, Nicky Boje bowling and Boucher keeping wicket. Zimbabwe were 62 for four, still 149 short of making South Africa bat again. YouTube does not log the instigation – if there was any – but it does post Boucher's persistent sledging through one over.

He begins by telling Taibu that he only looks to score runs when there is one seam bowler in the field. Then he sarcastically taunts a gentle drive straight to short cover.

"That's a big shot Tatenda," before asking where his mouth was during the previous Test when South Africa had a full pace attack. Boucher offers to walk Taibu back to the dressing room if he gets out, reminding him that his tour average might be in single figures.

The footage ends with Boucher asking Taibu whether his average is nine or 10 before, to laughs from fielders, deciding it might be 9.5 and charitably rounding it up to 10.

Sledging has a place in cricket as an enjoyable, witty accoutrement to a main narrative. But at this stage, between these opponents, where was the point?

Zimbabwe were going to lose the Test; they were always going to lose those Tests. That his target was Taibu, gentle, amiable and dignified Tatenda, the face of a boy but spirit of a man, felt particularly tasteless.

It was at this moment, I think, that the reasons for a long-held distaste for Boucher were crystallised.

Before, there was a vague presumption that he was a big cliquey part of a bigger collective of arrogance and overconfidence not nearly as good as they thought themselves.

When South Africa knocked themselves out of the 2003 World Cup with Boucher the unwitting man at the denouement (a fist-pumping celebration after he hit a six to tie the scores and then blocked the next ball to midwicket, thinking incorrectly that the six had won it and not tied it), there was widespread Schadenfreude at both, South Africa's goof and Boucher's role in it.

Now here, with Taibu, it became clear that Boucher was nothing more than a simple bully.

He probably sledged Australians as well, but that did not matter so much because against them, like his side, he looked submissive; precisely like someone who lost 14 of 20 Tests against them in a South Africa shirt.

Things had changed by the time he left last week, not just because of the natural sympathy and concern the manner of his end generated: an injury on what he had decided was his last tour that not only forced a premature end to his playing days but one that may cost him sight in his left eye. That is a sadness that goes beyond the personality of a cricketer.

But over the past few years, the South African side has changed in far more than just personnel.

Even under Graeme Smith's early captaincy, they could come across as boorish; for years they were thought to be rigid, colourless automatons, peopled by craggy-eyed sledgers and bullies.

But from late 2007, still under Smith and as they began their true ascent to the top, they softened, or at least perceptions of them did.

They were popular, approachable winners in Pakistan that year; Boucher became Test cricket's leading wicketkeeper in terms of dismissals on that tour and acknowledged it with humility, even grace.

They beat England in England and finally, Australia away, over the next year and became a team to be admired.

The clique was still there but had become less central perhaps to the image of the side; Dale Steyn, Hashim Amla, Ashwell Prince, JP Duminy presented a different South Africa.

Did Boucher become less barbed, less abrasive amid this? Maybe. He became a better wicketkeeper certainly, and he remained a batsman who staunched the rising exuberance of the opposition just as they thought they were into the tail.

He did it nowhere near as often – or as devastatingly – as Adam Gilchrist then, Matt Prior now or even MS Dhoni.

But he did it.

There might even have been a little sadness at the news a few months ago that Boucher was retiring, such a part of the latterly pleasant furniture had he become. Meanwhile the victim of that sledging that March day, Taibu, retired out of choice to work in church. He finished with a batting average of 30.31, which Boucher might note, is 0.01 more than his own.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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