A freak injury and a long and outstanding international career comes to an end. The eye injury that resulted in Mark Boucher announcing his retirement brought back memories of another career that was terminated 50 years ago in a split second even if that was not exactly a freak injury.
Indian captain Nari Contractor at the peak of his powers as a high calibre opening batsman faced up to Charlie Griffith in a game against Barbados at Bridgetown. The bowler’s action was controversial to say the least and Contractor despite an excellent record against pace bowling was not able to gauge the height of the ball after it pitched and he was hit on the side of the head.
That split second was enough to end his international career and Contractor had to undergo emergency operations and miraculously survived albeit with a plate in his head as a grim reminder of the incident.
Contractor was able to come back to first class cricket but his Test career ended that black day in March 1962. In Boucher’s case one is not sure whether he will be able to play first class cricket or any other form of the game even if like Contractor his international career is over.
Contractor’s case was tragic and so is Boucher’s. He had already said that this would be his last tour and he looked forward to two landmarks – playing 150 Tests and becoming the first wicket keeper to effect 1000 international dismissals. Now these figures will remain at 147 and 999. Both would have been a perfect tribute to a mainstay of South African cricket for 15 years.
But then Boucher was always an unsung and unheralded hero. Ray Robinson put it aptly in his classic From the Boundary when he observed "Wicket keepers are like office boys. Few people take notice of them until something gets in a mess - a folder or a chance is lost, an inkpot or a catch spilt, a mail or a stumping missed. For hours on end they may do their duty well and truly but mostly they are out of focus so to say as the onlooker’s gaze is held between wicket and wicket by the principals in the contest, bowler and batsman." Robinson’s words come to my mind every time I see outstanding stumpers who never really get their due.
For example I remember when Boucher notched up his 500th dismissal in Tests. It was a phenomenal achievement being the first man in gloves to achieve the feat. And yet it was buried somewhere in the sports pages of the newspaper I was reading, something very much in keeping with a feat accomplished by a wicket keeper.
A significant landmark achieved by Brian Lara or Sachin Tendulkar or Shane Warne or Muthiah Muralitharan would have received far more publicity but there was never any doubt that a tally of 500 dismissals even with the proliferation of Test matches was nothing short of significant.
A tally of 200 plus dismissals was for long the ultimate ambition of wicket keepers but the proliferation of Test cricket made 300 dismissals a distinct possibility and sure enough Australia’s Rodney Marsh became the first to break the barrier before retiring with 355 victims. His successor Ian Healy went past that mark before finally settling on 395 thanks to the fact that he played 23 more Tests than Marsh’s 96.
The brilliant Adam Gilchrist was always going to be a candidate to surpass that mark and perhaps be the first to reach 400 dismissals. After a yo-yo contest between the two great contemporaries Boucher beat Gilchrist to the record, became the first to go past 400 dismissals and then he reached a figure which could well be beyond future stumpers. It is another matter that Boucher has also scored over 5000 runs in Tests besides more than proving his worth in front of the stumps and behind them in limited overs cricket.
Age did not wither Boucher’s skills and he talked frequently of the goals he wished to achieve. This and his remarkable fitness kept him going. A picture of modesty Boucher always spoke about working on his game and becoming a better cricketer.
That’s the kind of hunger for success and an insatiable appetite for self-improvement and never being satisfied that saw Boucher reach the zenith. He is the only one with the double of 5000 runs and 500 dismissals in Tests and even with the proliferation of matches one can predict that his records will stand the test of time.
The record could not be in the hands of a nicer guy or a more intense competitor. In this dog eats dog professional world where no quarter is asked for and none given Boucher has maintained high standards of discipline, fitness and wicket keeping skills not to mention his pugnacity with the bat.
The fact that he has played 147 Tests and 295 ODIs and 25 T-20s since his debut is proof of his durability. Batsmen and bowlers came and went since 1997 but Boucher remained a permanent fixture in the South African side and a bulwark of strength. Professional integrity, strategic input as vice captain of the side and the uncanny ability to star in both forms of the game made Boucher a key component in the South African side.
He has scored the second fastest century in ODIs – off just 44 balls – and has also notched up five centuries in the longer version. While batting he was adept in playing both pace and spin, in keeping he was adept at keeping to both pace and spin. Boucher’s ratio of about 3.7 dismissals per Test makes him second-best among the successful keepers, marginally below Gilchrist.
Boucher still holds the world ninth wicket partnership record with Pat Symcox the two putting on 195 runs against Pakistan at Johannesburg in February 1998 in what was only his second Test match and his first on home soil. The real relevance of this feat lay not so much in its numbers but in the fact that it was pieced together with South Africa in deep trouble at 166 for eight.
Such feats were typical of Boucher the fighter who will be remembered both for starring in numerous rearguard actions as well as his acrobatic work behind the stumps. Boucher’s tremendous value will perhaps best be realized now. Graeme Smith and his men will certainly miss him as they commence a very important Test series in England and the tributes from his colleagues have been both handsome and sincere.More Columns