It wasn’t too long ago, late last year to be a little bit more exact, that most of the country was calling for Mark Boucher’s head. No more the nation’s heroic ‘keeper, record-breaker and determined pit-bull, Boucher was relegated to the subject position of a grizzled old man, too busy making his way over the hill to hold catches behind the stumps. There is no denying that his form was in decline. No centuries since 2008 and uncharacteristic dropped catches against the Sri Lankans saw Bouch’s career on the slide. Many people thought it was time to blood a youngster, myself included, but the selectors clung on. Now both the nation’s fears and hopes have been realised. But no-one wanted it to happen like this.
Imran Tahir’s first wicket taking delivery of Mark Boucher’s final tour in a Proteas jumper was a vicious googly that destroyed Gemaal Hussain’s stumps, sending one of the bails hurtling into the eye of South Africa’s prize wicketkeeper. Groggy and dazed, Mark Boucher left the field and the concern over who will keep in the first test began to develop. Nobody knew the extent of the injury, and the same people who had been calling for his head now began to refer to the freak injury as a blessing in disguise. I was not one of these people, and the reasons for this will be explained further on. What South African cricket fans did learn in the days to come was that the injury was a lacerated eyeball, followed by statements of AB de Villiers being the choice to take over the gloves for the first test. This was followed by Boucher’s return home, uncertainty over whether his sight would return in his left eye and the announcement of his retirement from all forms of the game. This was not the way he had planned to go, he had wished to end where he had started, winning tests for South Africa in England. Now, his retirement will only be recalled with a humble sadness.
Mark Boucher will be remembered by all opposition as a fierce opponent. Never one to go down without a fight, it is not only his wide array of achievements that will be fondly recalled, but his tenacious spirit that never considered a game to be lost. He was set to retire on 150 tests, which he would’ve reached at Lord’s, and it would’ve been yet another record for the illustrious gloveman. In his 14 year career he recorded an astonishing 998 dismissals behind the stumps (a world record), 555 of them coming at test level (another record). Add to this one more catch, taken in outfield against the West Indies in 2008, and the wicket of Dwayne Bravo while bowling against the West Indies in Antigua in 2005, and you have 1000 dismissals in all forms of the game. These are heights considered unreachable in this day and age. When you consider he also had a batting average of 30.00 at test level, his absence becomes all the more glaring.
To all those, before they knew the extent of the tragic situation, who called his injury an opportunity, I wish to illustrate to you why, when I heard the news, it gave me a horrible twist in my stomach akin to ascension in an elevator. Firstly, if you wouldn’t want a man with the capabilities I have already mentioned behind the stumps against the world’s number one test team in their own backyard, then you clearly don’t grasp the value of experience. Mistakes and indifferent form aside, a man who has toured the country on numerous occasions and has fought monumental battles on those very grounds, and others around the world, for 14 years, is a man I would want with the gloves on his hands. If we wanted to blood a new ‘keeper for the job, knowing full well that Boucher’s retirement was soon in the pipeline, why didn’t we test his successor against minnows such as Sri Lanka and New Zealand? These would’ve been the perfect opportunities for a fledgling ‘keeper breaking into the national team. Even more so considering New Zealand was a tour. Yes, Vilas was in the set-up, but he was not being groomed for the test role. Where was Thami Tsolekile?
With Boucher’s heart-breaking retirement, 31 year old Tsolekile has been hastily flown to England. He played three test matches for the Proteas in 2004, with little success. Tsolekile has had a long domestic career and has been earmarked for the job for a while now. However, you wouldn’t have thought it with the lack of international game time he has received. In my experience of watching Tsolekile, I haven’t been impressed. His batting has looked decidedly average, nowhere near the dogged leg-side heavy Mark Boucher, and as a wicket-keeper has looked a little bit flimsy. If you ask me, he won’t last long.
The strongest argument I’ve received regarding Boucher’s forced exclusion as a good thing is that it finally grants AB de Villiers the chance to become the best ‘keeper-batsman the world has ever seen. The sheer amount of ignorance behind this comment forces me to shake my head in disappointment. While AB does keep in the limited overs format, there is a clear and marked reason why he doesn’t in test matches. He has a recurring back injury that results in spasms and physically cannot crouch behind the stumps for days on end. He will do the job at the Oval next Thursday, possibly to his detriment, but not for the whole series. Hence Tsolekile’s inclusion. So, would you rather have him become one of the greatest middle-order batsmen to grace the game, or a crippled wasted talent? The choice is not difficult.
So, where to from here then? Unfortunately, dear reader, I don’t have the answer to that question. Domestic wicket-keeper stocks aren’t great, and those who do shine are those that are more suited to a limited overs approach. I’m not going to argue who it should be. My argument is that the decision should’ve been made much sooner, be it Tsolekile or not, and experience should’ve been garnered against weaker opposition. The Proteas now find themselves in bit of a test tangle. As for the resilient Mark Boucher, I can only offer a teary farewell. You have served the game as a gentleman, a champion and a warrior. Your enthusiasm was palpable and your achievements invaluable. As a country, we salute you.
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