Wicketkeeper Mark Boucher's injury might have ironically given the Proteas the extra edge they need to face England, writes Neil Manthorp.
During one of Mike Horn's impromptu chats in the Swiss Alps he recounted how he and his exploration partner, Borg Ousland, held their lives in their own hands – literally – every time they pitched a tent for the night during their epic, 70-day hike to the South Pole.
Walking on ice-flows in temperatures of -60°C, towing 200kg of food and supplies, and then frequently being forced to swim in body suits as the ice melted and crumbled beneath their feet. One leak in the suit would mean certain death. Pitching a tent is hard enough on a family holiday. In 100km-winds, one slip of the fingers and your shelter would most likely be on a different continent when it landed. Again, certain death.
The Proteas never encountered anything quite so brutal but they were pushed to new physical limits in very unfamiliar surroundings as they ascended glaciers on foot and mountains on bikes. They leapt from heights of 10m into freezing glacial pools and ran mountain paths created by grazing goats in the summer months.
And at the forefront of most of it was Mark Verdon Boucher, fitter and leaner than at any time in a decade, more focused and determined to succeed than most had ever seen – and a few could remember.
The players were all deeply moved by the experience but words can never match the real thing when it comes to the fragility of human life and how quickly things can change – in the blink of eye, in fact.
Boucher's fate has affected the squad in England more than anyone could possibly have imagined. Yes, sure, it is not a matter of life and death but the potential – perhaps even likely – loss of sight in his left eye has stunned everyone and left a profound feeling of shock. Not even the great wicketkeeper's messages of encouragement on Twitter have lifted the pall of gloom which settled over his teammates.
The man who must, and surely will take responsibility for changing the negative energy into a positive force is Boucher's best friend, Jacques Kallis. The great all-rounder showed where his priorities lay when he declined to continue batting on the second day of the Taunton match and stayed, along with Graeme Smith, at Boucher's bedside until midnight after the surgery. Team manager, Dr Mohammed Moosajee, remained, awake, throughout the night. The following night he accompanied Boucher back to South Africa.
When Horn spoke about "overcoming adversity" and "confronting your fears" his audience assumed that he was referring to physical challenges. As with the vast majority of males, particularly of this age, they are finding it considerably harder to cope with emotional ones.
Up until a week ago when his title changed to performance director, Paddy Upton was the team's mental conditioning coach. He retains that portfolio and it has been a particularly challenging few days for him. But he is confident the situation will resolve itself and may even lead to an extra edge to the team's performance.
"The most important thing was for everyone to feel confident enough in their environment to talk about their emotions without being judged. We can't afford to have anyone bottling up their feelings, about Mark or anything else. I'm encouraged to say that this has happened with a depth and maturity I've not seen before in a professional (male) sports team," Upton said.
"It's pretty obvious how distressed everyone was about what happened. Strong feelings for Mark's well-being were generated by his predicament. We have a week to try and channel those feelings and strength of emotion into on-field performances. If we can do that then, from what I've seen, we'll be even more difficult to beat. The option of us going the other way, is not an option. The lessons Mike Horn left us with made that perfectly clear," Upton said.
A coldly cricketing assessment of the change in personnel to the starting XI might suggest that the tourists, by choosing AB de Villiers as wicketkeeper, will have the luxury of being able to play either an extra batsman (JP Duminy) or an extra bowler (Marchant de Lange or Robin Peterson) for the first Test starting on Thursday. What that does not take into account, however, is the effect unseen by almost everyone outside the squad which Boucher has had on the Test team for over a decade.
"He's a second pair of eyes and ears for the captain and he senses things other players don't. His sixth sense is cricketing instinct and he reads the game better than anyone I have ever played with," said Smith. "I'll probably miss him more than I can imagine at the moment. He says he's going to be watching us. I hope he's ready for a few long phone calls during the series."
Even the prospect of people finally beginning to appreciate his extraordinary brilliance rather than questioning his presence is not simple consolation. Some of the same administrators who aimed knives at his back have already jumped on the bandwagon of praise. Boucher won't be enjoying that too much. Fiesty bugger that he is.