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By Partab Ramchand
Ray Robinson put it aptly in his classic `From the Boundary’ when he observed ``Wicket keepers are like office boys. Few people take notice of them until something gets in a mess - a folder or a chance is lost, an inkpot or a catch spilt, a mail or a stumping missed. For hours on end they may do their duty well and truly but mostly they are out of focus so to say as the onlooker’s gaze is held between wicket and wicket by the principals in the contest, bowler and batsman.’’
Robinson’s words came to my mind when I went through the news item that Mark Boucher had notched up his 500th dismissal in Tests. It was buried somewhere in the sports pages of the newspapers I was reading, something very much in keeping with a feat accomplished by a wicket keeper. A significant landmark achieved by Brian Lara or Sachin Tendulkar or Shane Warne or Muthiah Muralitharan would have received far more publicity but let’s get this straight. Getting to 500 dismissals even with the proliferation of Test matches is nothing short of significant.
A tally of 200 plus dismissals was for long the ultimate ambition of wicket keepers but the proliferation of Test cricket made 300 dismissals a distinct possibility and sure enough Australia’s Rodney Marsh became the first to break the barrier before retiring with 355 victims. His successor Ian Healy went past that mark before finally settling on 395 thanks to the fact that he played 23 more Tests than Marsh’s 96. The brilliant Adam Gilchrist was always going to be a candidate to surpass that mark and perhaps be the first to reach 400 dismissals. After a yo-yo contest between the two great contemporaries Boucher beat Gilchrist to the record, became the first to go past 400 dismissals and now has gone where no other stumper has reached. It is another matter that Boucher has also scored over 5000 runs in Tests besides more than proving his worth in front of the stumps and behind them in limited overs cricket.
A picture of modesty the 33-year-old Boucher wants to play on for some more time and why not? Age has not withered his skills and he is in fact talking of achieving goals now in the limited overs format. In ODIs he has a tally of 422 dismissals besides 4664 runs so another double of 5000 runs and 500 dismissals beckons. As humble as ever Boucher says he will keep working on his game to become a better cricketer. That’s the kind of hunger for success and an insatiable appetite for self improvement and never being satisfied that has seen Boucher reach the zenith. He is the only one with the double of 5000 runs and 500 dismissals (478 catches and 22 stumpings) and while it is dangerous to make such predictions his record looks safe for a very long time for the next 13 players on the list of most successful wicketkeepers have all retired.
The record could not be in the hands of a nicer guy or a more intense competitor. In this dog eats dog professional world where no quarter is asked for and none given Boucher has maintained high standards of discipline, fitness and wicket keeping skills not to mention his pugnacity with the bat. The fact that he has played 133 Tests and 292 ODIs since his debut more than a dozen years ago is proof of his durability. Batsmen and bowlers have come and gone since 1997 but Boucher has remained a permanent fixture in the South African side and a bulwark of strength. Professional integrity, strategic input as vice captain of the side and the uncanny ability to star in both forms of the game have made Boucher a key component in the South African side. He has scored the second fastest century in ODIs – off just 44 balls – and has also notched up five centuries in the longer version. While batting he is adept in playing both pace and spin, in keeping he is adept at keeping to both pace and spin. He has a low proportion of stumpings compared to Healy and Gilchrist but they had Shane Warne to offer them plenty of stumping opportunities. Boucher has mainly kept to an all seam attack and overall his record of about 3.8 dismissals per Test makes him second-best among the successful keepers, marginally below Gilchrist.
Thrice voted South African Player of the Year (in 1998, 2000 and 2006) as well as Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 2009 Boucher still holds the world ninth wicket partnership record with Pat Symcox the two putting on 195 runs against Pakistan at Johannesburg in February 1998 in what was only his second Test match and his first on home soil. The real relevance of this feat lay not so much in its numbers but in the fact that it was pieced together with South Africa in deep trouble at 166 for eight. Such feats are typical of Boucher the fighter who is remembered both for starring in numerous rearguard actions as well as his acrobatic work behind the stumps. Indeed of late he has acquired the title of ``the finisher’’ for he displays no nerves at all while batting however tense the situation. And with the end nowhere yet in sight one can only speculate on what his final tally of runs and dismissals will be.