Mark of Boucher
Even Don Bradman was bereft of it. Yet a not-so-perfect ending cannot deny a few sportsmen their legitimate place in the sun. South Africa's wicket-keeper Mark Boucher is one such cricketer.
His remarkably long international career, of almost 15 years, was tragically snuffed out when he was hit in the eye by a bail in a warm-up match against Somerset on July 9 during the ongoing England tour. He was only one short of 1,000 victims - an unheard of feat in the 145 years of international cricket history.
Agonisingly short of a milestone, just like Bradman who could not score the four runs in his final innings to sign off with a perfect test average of 100.
The England series was meant to be Boucher's last, where he was expected to walk into the sunset having crossed the monumental mark of 1,000 victims and 150 Tests. The plan was perfect, not destiny.
In cricket, keeping is, by far, considered the most thankless job. A difficult catch may get a slipfielder all the plaudits but for a keeper, standing only a couple of feet away, it's considered a routine job. For him the bar is much higher - nothing short of spectacular gets talked about. And he is expected to pick up every wayward throw of his colleagues and yet script impossible run-outs. That's not all - conceding a bye is viewed, even by his team mates, as almost criminal.
Life for a keeper is not only unfair but often cruel. Boucher, with his feline agility and characteristic combativeness, transformed this difficult job into a fashionable profession. His celebratory leap into the air after pulling off a stunning catch will remain frozen in the minds of cricket aficionados.
Boucher made sure his stocky stature never came in the way of snapping those gravity-defying catches. He took 532 catches in tests, 403 in ODIs and 18 in T20Is to go with 46 stumpings.
On paper a world record holder. On ground, bowlers' dream ally.
He was as spectacular behind the wicket as fearless in front - a firefighter in flannel. The incredible self-belief to collar any bowling attack often came shining through, especially when the team needed him the most.
Quite famously in the Johannesburg ODI in March 2006, Boucher produced a sparkling unbeaten 50 to chase down a seemingly impossible target of 434 against an Aussie bowling line-up that included Brett Lee, Nathan Bracken and Stuart Clark. It was an innings that would have made even the greatest of batsmen proud for its sheer determination and daring.
As a batsman, he was an enigma wrapped in a mystery. Under pressure, he had the knack of producing a shot that would pierce any field. And often with metronomic regularity till the team crossed the finish line. What he lacked in grace, he more than made up for it with his effectiveness, innovation and daredevilry. For a keeper to have clocked 5,515 runs in 147 tests with five centuries, it goes to show his extraordinary all-round cricketing skills.
In a team sport, rarely is an individual's effort indicative of a team's performance. Boucher's left its mark, often. Three of his five test centuries came in the winning cause and the other two in drawn matches. He averaged 1.97 victims per innings in the longer version of the game but in the 74 Tests that the Proteas won during his career, he averaged 2.1.
The keeping equivalent of a century is five or more victims in an innings and Boucher pulled it off on 14 occasions in test cricket and seven times in the shorter version. In June 1998, in his very first year of international career, Boucher dazzled with his glove work at the game's most majestic theatre - Lord's. He snapped five catches and affected one run- out in the first innings and followed it with two more catches in the second. South Africa won by 10 wickets.
And yet figures do not reveal Boucher the player in entirety. What perhaps best defines him was the selflessness with which he performed - always a captain's delight, invariably an opposition's nightmare.
If Sachin Tendulkar and Muttiah Muralitharan dominated peers with bat and ball, Mark Boucher did it with his pair of gloves. A freak accident may have ended his career but cannot take away his rightful place among the greats of contemporary cricket.