Boucher reborn in journey back from the wilderness

South Africa recall wicketkeeper once seen as a disruptive influence. Stephen Brenkley met him in Johannesburg
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South Africa's resurgence is a tribute to the pin-sticking method of team selection. They have clawed their way back to equality in the Test series against England, and still do not appear to have a clue what their best side is.

South Africa's resurgence is a tribute to the pin-sticking method of team selection. They have clawed their way back to equality in the Test series against England, and still do not appear to have a clue what their best side is.

By picking Mark Boucher in the squad for the fourth Test starting at the Wanderers here tomorrow, they are contemplating, and will almost certainly use, their third wicketkeeper of the series so far. Anybody in the country who owns a pair of gauntlets and a mobile phone should take them everywhere in case the selectors call.

Boucher was about to go into bat for his provincial side, the Warriors, when he received his summons last week. It represented a recall that was more surprising than his original omission late last year and did little to allay the suspicion that South African cricket is in disarray. It has been a commendable effort to pull back to 1-1 but there is the sense that it has been achieved despite, and not because of, team policy.

On the other hand, Boucher's return may prove to be a selectorial masterstroke, which finally sees the tourists off. In many ways, his case embodies the apparent confusion. Boucher had played 75 consecutive Tests for South Africa, more than any player in the country's history, when he was suddenly jettisoned for the tour of India late last year.

Several reasons were offered: his complacency and arrogance after an unbroken run of six years, the need to meet an unofficial quota of non-white players and, least attractive of all for conspiracy theorists, his poor batting form. The gloves for the two Tests in India and for the first match of this series were donned by Thami Tsolikele, a black African who had served a long provincial apprenticeship.

Before this accomplished keeper but limited batsman had a chance to do anything wrong, he was overlooked for the 20-year-old A B De Villiers, who was mightily impressive as both wicketkeeper and batsman. Boucher looked to be the forgotten man.

"I'm not the type of person who looks for excuses but I wasn't really performing with the bat," he said yesterday. "That was the reason I gave myself for being dropped. I wanted to leave the other stuff behind. The recall came as a big surprise to me and I had been prepared to work for a long period of time to get back into the side."

Boucher's initial exclusion followed widely leaked rumours that he was a disruptive influence in the dressing-room and part of a clique which thought itself pretty much untouchable. Sending him back to scuffle round provincial cricket was seen as a warning to the others.

"I've never been complacent when I've put on the cap to play for my country," he said. "If a side's not winning you've got to look to make some changes and, unfortunately, I was a victim of that. As far as I was concerned everything was fine in the dressing-room. There have been a lot of reports that this and that happened, but as far as I can remember it was OK."

This was not a point-blank assertion that all was hunky-dory. Credence was given to the theory that indifferent form was only part of it (and he made a half-century in his last Test innings) when he flew for a meeting with Gerald Majola, the chief executive of the United Cricket Board of South Africa, after he was dropped. Imagine a dropped England player, no matter how established, going to Lord's to talk about his future with the head of the England and Wales Cricket Board.

Since that meeting with Majola, however, Boucher has been noticeably less assertive in his public pronouncements, and by his own feisty standards was almost meditative during the resumption of his relationship with the press yesterday.

"I don't see myself as a guy who dwells on what's gone on in the past. I'm looking to the future and I have an opportunity to start a new career for myself. You get a chance to reflect when you're out of the side and the system. There's a lot of things I've tried to change personally and in my game and in the way I look at cricket as a whole."

He was not about drawn into detail, save for the almost incidental one that he will bat for time more often in future, rather than playing shots, because he did not want to give too much away. But if this was a man refusing to dwell on the past, he seemed also intent on learning from it. The recall may be English county cricket's loss.

Boucher conceded that he was so miffed after being dropped that he considered coming to England under the Kolpak ruling, which allows players like him to bypass the county game's restrictions on overseas players.

"I'd be lying if I said it hadn't crossed my mind. At one stage I was thinking, 'Am I still involved in the South African set-up?' and you've got to look at your career as a whole. But then I also said to myself that I had to try to give it a shot to get back."

He said that walking out to the Wanderers tomorrow - where the notoriously partisan home supporters will give him a hero's welcome since they love his combative style - will feel like a debut. "It's more exciting and I will be nervous if I do walk out. I feel like a youngster coming into the side [he is only 28] but I've just got to step back and use my experience to pull through."

He has done well enough without being outstanding since his return to provincial cricket with three fifties in 12 innings and an average of almost 40. But there is another aspect to his recall. "I love beating the English," he confirmed with passion. "It's a rivalry I've grown up with." It is that kind of zeal that South Africa may now need to see them through.