For year upon cricket year, Mark Boucher's scowling presence was synonymous with the South African side. The importance of his contributions varied but he was simply always there, and his team will, in the short term, be physically and psychologically diminished by his absence.

With his great friend Jacques Kallis, Boucher was one of the last two survivors of the Hansie Cronje era and an integral figure in the re-establishment of South African cricket in the years which followed his captain's fall. His qualities weren't showy, or elaborate, or refined, but they were genuine and vital: grit and bristling determination, allied to the valuable ability to take catches or make runs when the pressure was at its most intense.

The Lord's farewell will not be his; nor will 150 Tests or 1000 international dismissals. But these are personal and statistical milestones. For those who were around, the memories of his contribution to a fluctuating team in a changing era will take a very long time to fade.

Like Tatenda Taibu, his African keeping compatriot, who left the game in happier circumstances this week, he was a cricketer of resilience and some brilliance, even if, because he was lucky enough to have been born in 1976 rather than 1956, his career wasn't blighted by politics in the way that Taibu's was.

Limping out of an ODI in Durham probably wasn't how Brett Lee saw his international career ending either. With him, though, the memories are more vivid: the first time I can remember seeing him he was bowling to Mervyn Dillon on a Perth flier, his visceral speed awakening distant memories of Jeff Thomson. Scroll on a few years and he is bowling from the Pavilion End at Lord's in July 2005. At the start of his narrow-hipped run he leans forward like a sprinter before hurling himself at the crease with the smoothness of a thoroughbred. If anyone with fewer athletic gifts tried to do the same they would look clumsy and unbalanced, but Lee never does. Through the crease the sense of grace and incipient ball speed is so pronounced that people in the crowd find themselves catching their breath in with an involuntary sharpness that shocks them. Raw athleticism can do that to people.

A few weeks later he is bowling to Andrew Flintoff as England chase a modest target to win the Trent Bridge Test. Lee brings one back in at high pace to beat Flintoff's clumsy, defeated stroke, and the ball hits the top of the stumps. Lee spreads his arms to acclaim his triumph as England's hero of heroes shuffles off.

A few weeks later still in the greatest summer he is fielding on the boundary as England steadily bat his side out of game and series on the last day at The Oval. In the morning he has given everything, almost poleaxing Pietersen with one of the most fearsome deliveries anyone present has seen in years and also having him dropped at slip by Shane Warne. After lunch he has seen Pietersen repeatedly hit him over and through the leg side, leaving his fellow fast bowler, Shaun Tait, scrambling in the dirt at deep square leg.

From my vantage point high up in front of the gasholders, I can see that Lee is smiling and laughing with the crowd, even though the Ashes are slipping away. He has done the same for much of the summer, earning the respect of everyone for his warmth and humanity. It will be something he will never lose, even as his team declines.

He is everyone's favourite Australian.

1 comment:

SL said...

so great is the game of cricket that everyone is caught up in its magic. One might lose a game, but no one really loses the cricket moment in a game.


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