When the gloves come off

Mark Boucher’s name has been appearing on South Africa team sheets since he was 19 years old. He has just turned 35 and the life of a professional cricketer is the only one he has known for his entire adulthood. But not for much longer.

Speculation about his worth to the team has been mounting for 18 months, ever since he was jettisoned as wicketkeeper from the one-day international team in favour of AB de Villiers.
He has retained his place in the Test team and has, in fairness, remained largely unchallenged.

Now, after featuring in a staggering 144 of the 149 Tests the Proteas have played since his debut against Pakistan in Sheikhupura in October 1997, he has mapped his exit strategy. If all goes according to plan, his confirmation in the Test squad that leaves for New Zealand in two weeks’ time will be the start of his final six matches.

“I’m as proud as I have ever been in my career to play for my country and I’m extremely grateful for the faith shown in me by Gary [Kirsten, Proteas coach] and the selectors, and I fully intend to repay that faith in New Zealand,” Boucher told the Mail & Guardian this week.

“Like all sportsmen, I know that my playing career can’t go on forever and that a successor to me must be found for the Test team, and I would like to help with that process.

“I still feel as confident and comfortable with the bat and gloves as I ever have. If I did not then I would have stepped away from international cricket as soon as I thought I couldn’t maintain the standards I’ve always set for myself,” said the man with an almost certainly never-to-be-broken record of 544 Test dismissals.

“Both Gary and Graeme [Smith, Test captain] have spoken about their desire to take an experienced team to England later in the year to defend the Basil d’Oliveira Test trophy and I would love to be in that squad, but only if I am still performing and worthy of my place on merit, not reputation.

“If I am selected to tour England, then I intend to make that my final tour with the national team.
After that it will be time for someone else to take over the gloves and for me to focus on the next stage of my life,” Boucher said.

What that will entail is uncertain at this stage, but it is almost certain to involve golf and property investment, both passions he shares with his best friend, Jacques Kallis. He has also been invited by his business manager, Donné Commins, to assist in the development of young players.

It is something he is extraordinarily well qualified to do—provided he does not believe that all lessons should be learned the hard way, like he had to do.

As usual the exterior was as hard as ironwood this week, but there was no disguising the intensity of the emotions this decision has raised in him. He made a pact with Kallis five years ago that they would both win Test series in Australia and England—and a World Cup - before they finished. Two out of three is not bad. Kallis, it seems, may just get a chance to complete the trio on their behalf.

“If I make it to Australia in 2015 and we win, it would be very, very special,” Kallis said on Wednesday. “If we did then I’d cut the medal in half and give the other piece to him.”

Boucher will always be spiky, competitive and a little defensive, but it was equally clear that recent criticism of his performances, some of it unfair and ill-informed, had worn him down. And he was adamant that nothing about the next six months was being taken for granted.

“I want to stress that I believe in merit selection and if the selectors believe there is somebody better before the England tour then I will accept their decision and do everything I can to help the new man,” he said.

He refused to speculate on who that might be, but Cobras wicketkeeper Dane Vilas appears to have vaulted ahead of Dolphins and Titans glovemen Daryn Smit and Heino Khun on the back of a few scores with the bat.

Then, just when you think one of South Africa’s greatest cricketers might be a little more “reflective” than usual, he bounces back like a spring sapling.

“Right now I’m just focusing all my energy on playing the best Test cricket of my life over the next six months and finishing on a high, perhaps even with the number one world ranking. Hopefully there are still plenty of runs and catches to come. There’s certainly still plenty of life left in this cricketer and I want people to remember me for all the right reasons.”

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