A man to go to war with, but never against, Mark Boucher packs all the archetypical attributes of the South African cricketer into his short, stocky frame. He is relentlessly competitive, invariably aggressive, and as hard and uncompromising as the new ball. He makes a point of, in his own words, “walking onto the field as if you own the place”.
His relative lack of pure wicketkeeping skill and ability was exposed on South Africa’s 1998 tour to England when he was repeatedly undone by the swing of the ball after it had pitched. But even then, as now, Boucher had no peer in terms of temperament, guts and determination, and he duly fashioned himself into one of the finest glovemen in the game. He can often be seen, long after the rest of the squad has hit the showers after a training session, willing himself through another set of wicketkeeping drills. The hard work has paid off, and he is likely to hold the record for Test dismissals – among many others – long after his retirement.
As a batsman Boucher lives for the big moment, the quick 30 or 40 his team needs to win a match, or the session that must be spent at the crease to ensure a draw. His most memorable innings is probably the scintillating unbeaten 50 he scored to complete South Africa’s surge to a series-clinching target of 438 for 9 off the penultimate ball of a one-day international against Australia in Johannesburg in March 2006.
Boucher strutted through 75 consecutive Tests before the suits thought he needed to be brought down a peg or two and dropped him for the tour to India in 2004. His reality duly checked, he returned to the national team as the ultimate man for the trenches. Now in the autumn of his career, his renewed commitment to his conditioning should earn him extra years at the top.
For a man who looms so large in the world of cricket, Boucher started small. He was invariably smaller, and younger, than anyone else in the age-group provincial teams he played in. But the neon intensity in his eyes in the otherwise banal team photographs told of a kid who meant business. Boucher was a junior South African squash champion, and famously once played a national final with a racquet arm that had not long before emerged from a plaster cast. He lost, but in five games.