Dylan Rogers
Dylan Rogers

Mark Boucher: Potential fulfilled

Potential. It’s often that little bit of something that many of us possess, but never maximise. An ingredient or two that steers us in a particular direction, begging to be fostered, nurtured and ultimately acted upon. Often it’s latent ability, so obvious that to consign it to the scrapheap of “unfulfilled potential” would be a crime. And that’s how we find our way to South African sport’s latest world record-holder.

Mark Boucher is the South African wicketkeeper who just last week became Test cricket’s most successful man behind the stumps in terms of overall dismissals. In going past Australian Ian Healy’s record of 395 Test dismissals, Boucher only confirmed what those who had been following his progress since he was a precociously talented youngster in East London always suspected: that he would go on to great things in the world of sport.

Initially, though, the question was: Which one? A schoolboy star on both the cricket and rugby fields and on the squash courts, Boucher looked to be spoilt for choice in making the decision that would shape his sporting future. Squash didn’t appear an option, despite the skilful Selborne College schoolboy, who possessed a delightful short game, being ranked in the top three in his age group in the country, but that probably had more to do with the bleak financial future that a career in squash presented.

So, a difficult call between those two front-line South African sports, cricket and rugby, with cricket ultimately having the final say.

A naturally talented wicketkeeper and batsman, Boucher, who represented SA Schools and SA Under-19, was a prime target for the University of Port Elizabeth’s cricket academy and, with the institution just down the road from home town East London, the decision was an easy one. But, this is where it gets interesting, as the following year may just have shaped Boucher’s future, exposing him to a world he was drawn to, but one which he ultimately realised wouldn’t do his prospects of a career in sport any good.

A naturally “social” being, popular with the members of the opposite sex and, like a large proportion of first-year students at university, partial to a drink or two, Boucher fell in among thieves or, more specifically, one thief in particular. This character himself was a schoolboy sports star, but chose to drink that talent away at UPE and in Boucher saw a young protégé in the making. The two enjoyed themselves that year, with Boucher’s sport taking a back seat and the young wicketkeeper/batsman getting by on pure talent alone. That allowed him to keep his place in the UPE first team, but he would often find himself down at nine in the batting order and sometimes not even keeping wicket, as UPE had plenty to choose from, in some of the country’s top young cricket stars.

The lengths to which Boucher went to enjoy himself were, apparently, legendary, but somewhere, someone in the next couple of months must have dragged him aside and told him what was on offer, should he trade in his party lifestyle for a career in sport. It worked. Boucher was back in East London by the end of that year.

A stint with the National Academy followed the following year, where Boucher, under the watchful eye of the hard-nosed Clive Rice, flourished and started to edge ahead of Gauteng-based Nic Pothas in the pecking order to succeed national team wicketkeeper Dave Richardson. A return to Border cricket later that year saw Boucher kick on and quickly establish himself as the most exciting young wicketkeeper batsman in the country.

I relate Boucher’s UPE antics not for the purposes of tarnishing his name, because his behaviour was no different from that of the thousands of young South Africans who enter first year every February at the various universities around the country. Instead, the purpose is to show just how easily it could all have gone wrong and for Boucher to have never fulfilled the obvious potential he showed at an early age.

In saying that, the national selectors still surprised a few when he was selected, at the age of 20, to replace the injured Richardson, ahead of an aggrieved Pothas, on the 1997 tour of Pakistan. But they were quickly vindicated when Boucher put on a record 195 for the ninth wicket with Pat Symcox against Pakistan at the Wanderers, in just his second Test match.

Further records followed — fastest man to 100 dismissals and highest score by a nightwatchman, backed up by three Test centuries in his first 25 matches, appearing in 75 consecutive Tests and then the record-breaking feats in Pakistan last week — going past Ian Healy’s Test mark of 395 dismissals, before becoming the first man to record 400 Test dismissals in the second Test against Pakistan.

Boucher, though, brings more to the South African team than catches, stumpings and runs. It is well known that he’s an abrasive character behind the stumps and provides the South African team with the aggressive edge they feel they need to take on the likes of Australia, who seem to represent the benchmark in terms of mental toughness on the cricket field. He’s a mongrel, a fighter and one you want in your corner, should the situation require it.

It’s a little more than 10 years since that career-saving decision to quit the drinking holes of Port Elizabeth for the daily grind and dedication of life as a professional sportsman. But, from where I’m sitting, it’s all been worth it. Now we have a world-class athlete on our books, a world record-holder, one of the top wicketkeepers in the game of cricket and, more importantly, a special piece of potential fulfilled.