Wicketkeepers are a special breed of players. They are an integral part of the team and while fast bowlers attack with pure aggression and batsmen knuckle down in the crease and frustrate the opposition, wicketkeepers sit and wait behind the stumps.
They watch, they sledge and they gnaw at the skin of the opposition while time ticks away and they gather the deliveries spilled behind the stumps and glide through the air, effortlessly, like marionettes attached to invisible strings.
To be a good wicketkeeper takes hard work. To be an excellent wicketkeeper takes being born with a special fire burning inside of you. To be a legendary keeper and a handy lower-order batsman, takes a once-in-a-generation prodigy, like Mark Boucher.
After 14 years of service to South African cricket, Boucher announced his retirement from cricket on Tuesday following a severe eye injury that has forced him out of the Test series against England. He’s had a successful career after being thrown into the deep end, making his Test debut against Pakistan in 1997. He made just six runs in that match, but notched up 78 as part of a 195-run partnership for the ninth wicket just a few months later. It set the foundation for what has been an illustrious career, filled with records.
He currently holds the record for most dismissals in Test cricket. He was the first wicketkeeper to take 500 catches in Tests and, with 999 dismissals behind the stumps in international cricket, he is also the wicky with the most dismissals in international cricket, a record which might never be broken. The third and final Test at Lord’s would have been his 150th cap.
Though his statistics are remarkable, they are dwarfed by his character and his fighting spirit. Over the years, Boucher has overcome adversity time and again and he has served his team with almost military loyalty. In his prime, no match would ever be over while Boucher was in the crease and he would scrap to help the Proteas hang on and scrape out a win. Whether it was batting on with a broken toe after being struck by a 150km/h yorker from Shaun Tait or whether he had to dig in deep to help the lower order scrape together the runs needed to win that 438-9 game, Boucher’s spirit was indomitable.
When a teary-eyed Graeme Smith read his retiring statement at Taunton on Tuesday, the atmosphere was palpable and the emotion and respect for Boucher could be felt through television screens all across the world. The retirement of a man who has for more than a decade entrenched himself in the cricketing community and dug himself into the hearts of many sent the cricketing community into a frenzy. Well-wishes and farewells poured in from all corners of the world as everyone united in reminiscence of the captivating wicketkeeper who will no longer be seen on our screens.
His sledges, like the one where he gives Tatenda Taibu an earful, will no longer send fits of giggles to living rooms across the world, and his never-say-die spirit will no longer pump through the South African dressing room. He leaves big gloves to fill.
When a legend of the game calls it quits, it can often feel like a sucker punch to the stomach. No player is bigger than the game, but they sure make it a hell of a lot more exciting. Usually these soldiers of the game get to dictate the terms of their retirement. They get to pick and choose and mull over their decision for days, weeks, months. Boucher hasn’t been so lucky.
Though it’s a tragedy that such a long and impressive career has been brought to a halt so cruelly and abruptly, it’s somewhat fitting. Boucher went down doing what he loved the most, fighting like only he could fight and there is no doubt he will continue to fight.
Undoubtedly he will return to the cricketing fold in one way or another – be it in the television studios, on the sidelines or simply in the stands. If fans of the ocean-eyed man have been few and far between, respect for him has not waned. He deserves to be hailed as a legend. DM
Photo: Mark Boucher (Reuters)
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