Midway through the third Test of South Africa’s tour of England in 2008, Kevin Pietersen went berserk. He had made mincemeat of the Proteas’ attack and had the Edgbaston crowd bouncing. Alongside Paul Collingwood, Pietersen had catapulted England’s lead to 136 and threatened to triple it. South Africa needed a breakthrough. That’s when Mark Boucher – then South Africa’s wicketkeeper, now South Africa’s coach – devised a cunning plan.
“Bouch told me he wanted me to swear at KP,” remembers Paul Harris, the left-arm spinner with 103 Test wickets. “I didn’t need a second invite. KP was on 94 and Bouch figured he’d want to reach his ton with a six. So the plan was to play on his ego a bit, get him angry.”
So it began. Makhaya Ntini bowled the next over and Harris and Boucher tore into Pietersen. His first ball against Harris, Pietersen charged down the wicket and unfurled an ugly hack. He struck it well but not out of the middle. It flew flat and hard and straight to AB de Villiers who was pushed further back at mid-on. Pietersen fell into the trap.
“That moment sums up Mark Boucher,” Harris says. “He’s a prickly character and can rub people up the wrong way. He’s like Marmite. I love him but other people don’t. He seems like he just wants a scrap but he has a deeply intelligent cricket brain. He can read the situation before anyone and will do anything to win. I’m convinced that turned the game and the series.”
The match was won thanks to a fourth-innings 154 not out by Graeme Smith, well supported by an unbeaten 45 from Boucher. That series win served as a catalyst for a golden generation that would go on to claim the No 1 spot on the ICC’s Test rankings. Numerous world-class talents played their role, but Boucher’s tirade got things going.
After a chastening defeat at Old Trafford in the second Test, Boucher’s side head to the Oval on Thursday needing all the battling qualities their coach has shown over the years. Handed the Proteas gloves at 21 he fought his way across 147 Tests, claiming a record 555 dismissals. An errant bail in Taunton ended his career when it flicked off the stumps and made contact with his left eye, causing irreparable damage. After a five-year hiatus from the game he returned when the Titans franchise in Centurion needed a coach in August 2016.
“Albie Morkel was captain at the time and asked me what I thought about Bouch taking over,” says Farhaan Behardien, a former Protea with 97 caps who played under Boucher at the Titans. “I respected what he’d done as a player but I also knew he didn’t have any coaching experience. I knew he was a disciplinarian but was curious to see how he’d do without any coaching behind him.”
Boucher’s lack of coaching credentials has been a sticking point for critics. Either way, with an all-star cast including De Villiers, Morne Morkel and Quinton de Kock, Boucher lifted five titles in three seasons. After a dismal showing at the 2019 World Cup, and a 3-0 Test-series drubbing in India, Boucher was tasked with rebuilding the Proteas.
It was a controversial pick. He had the backing of his players and captain Faf du Plessis spoke of the renewed energy within the side. But the optics were a concern. His appointment coincided with that of Smith and Jacques Faul as director of cricket and Cricket South Africa’s CEO respectively. Interim coach Enoch Nkwe was demoted to an assistant role. Suddenly the hands on the levers of power were all white in a country still grappling with racial politics.
Then came the Social Justice and Nation-Building Hearings last year which exposed latent tensions within the sport. The most shocking revelation came from Paul Adams, the former spinner, who recounted an incident where he was called “brown shit” in a fines meeting in a bastardised version of the Boney M song Brown Girl in the Ring. Boucher admitted he had taken part in this public humiliation. Boucher apologised but there are enough South African fans who believe his crime should have seen him fired. CSA opened, and then abandoned, a formal charge of racism against him.
Despite a fragile batting unit, South Africa are in a strong position to qualify for the World Test Championship final at Lord’s next year. Captain Dean Elgar has praised his team for scoring “ugly runs” and embodying the virtues of their coach. “That’s what Boucher teams are about,” Harris says. “He doesn’t know any other way. He talks straight and lets you know exactly what he thinks. There’s no guessing with him.”
An innings defeat in Manchester has momentum on England’s side and South African backs against the wall. That will suit Boucher just fine.