England in SA

Boucher extends world ticket

2010-01-16 22:05
Mark Boucher (File)
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

Cape Town – India next, then West Indies … and who knows how many more Test series Mark Boucher is still assured of involvement in after that, even at the ripe of old age of 33 and after 130 appearances for South Africa?

At a pleasingly near-full Wanderers on Saturday, the veteran wicketkeeper was more responsible than any of his equally pumped-up team-mates for tightening the noose around England’s necks in the do-or-die fourth Test.

The Proteas’ sharp-edged pace attack ripped out three of the tourists’ second-innings batsmen in a stop-start final session of the third day, leaving them a precarious 195 runs in arrears with seven wickets intact.

But before that Boucher had led the way with 95 from his now-customary No 7 spot as the hosts piled on demoralising first-knock runs to assure heavy superiority of 243 before Graeme Smith’s declaration.

The context of Boucher’s arrival at the crease, on an unrelentingly spicy track, needs to be considered: South Africa had lost three morning wickets for the addition of only 20 runs and England, suddenly, had a real opportunity to haul themselves meaningfully back into the match – they were trailing by 55, no train smash at that point, and the risk existed that they might run through the tail.

But Boucher, as we know, is the feisty buffer between the specialist batting and those tail-enders, and it wasn’t long at all before he, importantly aided by AB de Villiers in a stand of 120 in some 30 overs, had shifted the momentum right back the Proteas’ way.

He has been playing more fluently and productively in this series than several of the blue-chip men above him – including De Villiers, who retained his slightly hot-and-cold reputation this summer by having moments of extremely good fortune en route to his own half-century.

And as he closed in on what would have been a sixth career century, Boucher found a new, willing ally in debutant Ryan McLaren, whose unbeaten 33 included some deft play square on the leg side and one positively Graeme Pollock-like off-drive against James Anderson.

It is not Boucher’s penchant – and it is probably down to his renowned temperament and positivity – to get out in the so-called nervous nineties.

Until Saturday, it had happened to him only once before in his 185 Test knocks: when he notched 92 against Sri Lanka at Newlands in January 2001.

So it came as a minor surprise when he holed out on the fine-leg fence to a looping sweep against Graeme Swann, five runs shy of three figures. He was not personally amused, ruffling some foliage with his bat in front of the South African dressing room as he exited.

But Boucher’s series job with the blade – not to mention his ever-reliable service at his main trade – is pretty certainly done, and with lofty results for him.

As things stand, he is third only to the kingpin duo of Smith and Jacques Kallis in weight of series runs (341) and second on the podium to the former for average (56.83). He cannot be said to have “duffed it” with the bat in any of the four Tests.

It has been the perfect retort to those – and many of us drift in that direction occasionally, I concede -- who feel he is potentially dispensable because his career average (now on 30.85 and inching upward again) is slightly below what you expect of most Test ‘keepers operating around No 7 these days.

He is certainly a gutsy, thick-skinned little limpet in terms of lifting his game whenever detractors crank up their volume buttons markedly, and making it almost impossible to axe him.

There are some more vexing batting issues in this South African team at present than Mark Verdon Boucher, that is for sure, so his continued passage to exotic places over the next few months is a fait accompli.

On the road to his bulky contribution at the Wanderers, Boucher enjoyed the distinction of reaching 5000 Test runs, only the second Test gloveman to achieve that after Australia’s mercurial Adam Gilchrist, who remains more than 500 runs clear at the top of the ladder (5570) although Boucher is a clear and very present threat to that pinnacle.

Say what you like about the retired Gilchrist’s significantly superior average of 47.60: 5000 runs is a distinguished landmark, full-stop, for men more used to bending, diving and scrambling behind the stumps for hours at a time.

At least Boucher did not miss out on the landmark of achieving a century against these particular opponents – he has been there and done that, at Kingsmead in December 1999 when his 108 was a key support role to Gary Kirsten’s record, stonewall 275 as South Africa batted 209 overs in their second innings to save that match.

The chips were not nearly so “down” for the Proteas on Saturday, of course, although Boucher’s timing of this particular innings was worth gold in its own right.

England are in a position where only their own remarkably resilient equivalent to Kirsten, or further generous help from the elements, seems a route to survival …

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