South Africa's tour of England was severely disrupted yesterday by the immediate retirement of their wicketkeeper, Mark Boucher, after he was struck in the eye by a bail. Boucher suffered a lacerated eyeball in the tourists' opening match when standing up to the bowling of Imran Tahir and needed a three-hour operation.
The seriousness of the injury and the long-term repercussions for an international sportsman swiftly became clear and Boucher will fly home as soon as he is able, to what he described as "a road to uncertain recovery". Boucher, 35, has played 147 Test matches and has 555 victims, by far the most for a wicketkeeper.
In all internationals, he has 998 victims during a career which began in 1997 and scored 5,515 runs at an average of 30. Boucher's steadfastness and dedication to the cause were never in doubt and he was there – with captain Graeme Smith – during the unbeaten partnership which secured South Africa's series victory in England in 2008, their first since 1965.
He would have played in his 150th Test in the third and last match of the series against England. It had been widely anticipated that he might then call it a day.
The effect on the balance of the team so close to the start of the series a week tomorrow will be bad enough, but the circumstances of Boucher's withdrawal may cause damage to team morale which will not be easily repaired so far from home.
Batsman AB De Villiers will take over behind the stumps at least for the opening match but a replacement keeper, likely to be Thami Tsolekile, will be named today.
There was no doubting the strength of feeling in the statement by South Africa captain Smith as he paid tribute to his team-mate and friend. "Bouch, we have walked a long road together, and we are saddened to part under these circumstances," Smith said. "For the 14 years of your international career, you have been a true Proteas warrior, a patriotic South African, a fighter who asks nothing and gives everything. You have been a 100 percenter for this team."
Since South Africa returned to the international fold in 1992, their main two wicketkeepers have been Dave Richardson, now the chief executive of the International Cricket Council, who won 42 caps, and Boucher. Both Tsolekile and De Villiers have done the job in three matches.
Boucher was a late developer as a keeper and was encouraged into a dual role by South Africa's former coach, Bob Woolmer. He came first to prominence on the South African tour of England in 1998 when he took 25 catches and a stumping in the Test series but dropped some crucial chances.
Boucher's absence probably means that South Africa will select an extra batsman since they already field five bowlers, including Jacques Kallis. He sustained his injury when a googly from Tahir hit the stumps and dislodged a bail, which flew up into Boucher's left eye. Had he been wearing a helmet or sunglasses he would have been protected. A similar injury ended the career of Kent and England wicketkeeper Paul Downton.
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