Retirement had already suggested itself to Mark Ramprakash and Mark Boucher, it just arrived more abruptly than either thought it would. Ramprakash might have imagined a golden late summer afternoon somewhere in the Shires, the last few balls of his professional days ringing from his bat like the echoes of so many before, perhaps one final hundred to sign himself off. Boucher had the stats uncannily aligned: a thousand dismissals in international cricket, 150 Test match caps with the last of them at Lord's, and the chance to scrap his beloved Proteas to the number one spot as he went.
It was not to be, of course. Boucher leaves those stats hanging tantalisingly, with their Bradman-like rows of nines. His injury was horrible, not the way his most riled opponent would have wished him to go, but once it has healed (as we all hope it will) the sadness will soften. His career is rounded, and the stats bracket longevity and drive rather than exceptional talent. What comes to mind is the bristling fighter that he was was; a backs to the wall merchant, a classic wingman, a Healy not a Gilchrist.
Boucher has, spookily, weirdly, embodied the South African cricket team. It was he who blocked out the final ball after Shaun Pollock's infamous World Cup miscalculation. He was at the crease when England were beaten in that totemic first away series win since readmission. He was dropped for being too arrogant and sure of himself; he spent his last couple of seasons in private introspection. It was Boucher who talked Herschelle Gibbs into coming clean before the King Commission.
There's a much-viewed youtube clip of Boucher sledging Zimbabwe's Tatenda Taibu - another keeper who retired this week - and it sums up the dichotomy he reveled in. Zimbabwe were 62-4 at the time, and there's a slightly queasy feeling at the lunking, muscly South Africans bullying them, a notion magnified by Taibu's schoolboy looks.
But then come Boucher's sledges. They are not hectoring, but subtly undermining. He plays on Taibu's ego - the sarcastic 'that's a big shot Tatenda'; then his size and appearance - 'I'll walk you back to the pavilion'; and finally his performance: 'You must know your average. Nine? Ten? We'll give you 9.5'. It is sly, clever, experienced, calculated, and inbetween it all, he takes a ball that barely bounces with a minimum of fuss.
Mark Boucher will settle in the memory like so many fulfilled cricketers before him. Time came for him, as it does for them all. Mark Ramprakash, brooding prince of Surrey CCC, county cricket's Heathcliff, leaves behind something far more complex. It's been interesting to watch his followers and commentators trying to work out what it is. Regret is too obvious and too easy. If Boucher was emblematic of South Africa, then who better to be emblematic of England in the 1990s than Ramprakash, thwarted by ambition and misdirection, denied by better players, consistently out of time.
Yes, it would have been more aesthetically satisfying to watch Ramprakash score the runs that his buddies Hussain and Thorpe did, but his unfulfilment as an England player gave us one of the great second acts in English lives. Viewed as an act of revenge, as an expression of fury and beauty, it becomes compelling, unmissable; what's more it is unique. For two consecutive seasons, he averaged more than a hundred. How spectacular and magnificent. Lots of players have had Test careers like Thorpe or Hussain or Butcher. No-one else in the history of the game has done that.
Too much time has been spent thinking about what he didn't do, and not enough gazing in wonder at the scale of what he did. What drove him, on all of those quiet weekdays? Maybe not even he knows.
The comparison most often drawn is between Ramprakash and Ian Bell, the tenderly-handled beneficiary of a winning, nurturing environment. But come on... do we really want Ramprakash to be Ian Bell? Sure, Bell plays prettily, but he is an identikit modern international, monotone, locked in, moulded. Ramprakash was something far more interesting and alive. If he'd scored sixteen Test hundreds, he'd be just another player. As it is, he is an enigma, an emblem, a legend, a star. The players that live on are the ones who grip our imagination, and Ramprakash has done that and will continue to do so. Now that is a legacy.
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