By Nick Cowley
What can Morne van Wyk do that Mark Boucher can’t? That question is being asked by many fans outside South Africa, used to seeing the same nuggety Proteas gloveman for 13 years, and not a few in the country.
Van Wyk’s selection for the World Cup had less to do with age (Boucher is 34, Van Wyk turns 32 this weekend) than team and selection dynamics. van Wyk was never meant to be more than back-up for AB de Villiers in the World Cup squad, but ‘backing up’ proved to be a prophetic term as de Villiers’ lumbar strains kept him in the outfield (where he excels with a Jonty Rhodes-like flair anyway) before a tweaked thigh took him out of the team completely against Ireland. That could end as de Villiers recovers and South Africa look for a way to accommodate all their three spinners.
Van Wyk does bring to the Proteas squad, vis-a-vis Boucher, slightly more flexibility in the batting order. Boucher is a proven quantity, essentially as a middle-order batsman. He is solid in Tests and a superb partner to a set top-order batsman with a series at stake (think India in 2000 with Kallis and England in 2008 with Smith), but aggressive in ODIs, able to add quickly to an already high score or to ‘finish’ when seven, eight or more runs per over are needed. van Wyk can play that role, but he has also batted usefully in the top-order for his province (Free State) in different formats for many years.
He can also play a ‘pinch-hitter’ role at the top - as he did with great success in a recent T20 international against India - or play a sort of AB role of coming in at No 3 or No 4 and pushing the score along without too much risk (the role he was assigned, in AB's absence, against Ireland this week).
As wicket-keepers, there is little to choose. Boucher has been the soul of reliability to pace or spin over the years, and a fluff like his crucial dropping of Michael Atherton off Allan Donald in 1998 only stands out because of its rarity. Age has hardly slowed him down - he still dives a long way to take catches or save byes. van Wyk does the same, but is perhaps very slightly more gaffe-prone - the ‘Kamran Akmal moment’ to let off Virender Sehwag last week was something he has been guilty of - very intermittently - in his career over the years.
And of course there is the ‘X’ factor of presence. Which one would you rather have egging on the bowlers and fielders or passing the odd comment to the batsman that riles without actually 'sledging' him? Here, some might disagree, but I would say Boucher hands down. van Wyk has a boyish and even infectious enthusiasm, but is probably too embarrassed to say much to far more seasoned teammates and opponents.
Boucher's long experience and natural humour, on the other hand, allow him to encourage bowlers in ways he learned long ago from the likes of Ian Healy and Alec Stewart, and occasionally to talk even the most hardened opposing batsman into trying to break a run drought with an ill-advised shot.
On balance, then, I personally would have handed Boucher the fourth World Cup he wanted so badly - as a team man first and last, he would have understood the need to make way for de Villiers whenever required.
(Nick Cowley is a Johannesburg-based cricket buff who works for the South African Broadcasting Corporation as a Radio News editor )
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