South Africa's AB de Villiers celebrates at St George's Park after reaching his centruy. Photo: REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
South Africa's AB de Villiers celebrates at St George's Park after reaching his centruy. Photo: REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
Kagiso Rabada celebrates after taking the wicket of Australia's Usman Khawaja. Photo: REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
Kagiso Rabada celebrates after taking the wicket of Australia's Usman Khawaja. Photo: REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

PORT ELIZABETH - Lesser players will take solace from the fact that even the great AB de Villiers also suffers from the “nervous nineties”. De Villiers certainly did on Sunday en-route to a magical century that has allowed South Africa to take control of the second Test at St George’s Park.

There may be questions swirling around as to how long De Villiers will still be performing for the Proteas in the Test arena, but those are mere trivial matters. It is far better to appreciate a batsman who has lost none of his mercurial abilities and who will sit alongside the legends of the game when he does indeed call time on his glorious career.

Sunday was an exhibition of how much De Villiers’ skill will be missed for the 34-year-old tore into a high-quality Australian bowling attack without breaking a sweat. It was his 22nd Test century and first since returning from his sabbatical.

“It is right up there with the best feeling ever. Ten out of 10,” De Villiers said of his undefeated 126. “I was very relieved. I was very nervous in the 90s. It might not have showed, but I was telling Vernon (Philander) out there that I was struggling to breathe. 

"My legs literally went numb. It is funny to hear someone that’s played for 13-14 years say that, but it is true. It really meant a lot to me that 100.

“I had to keep reminding myself in the 90s that it was not about myself, but about contributing to the team as much as possible. That made me feel a little bit better.”

De Villiers’ brilliance, along with the brashness of a tail and the rage that pumps within Kagiso Rabada ensured SA should level the series.

No one is counting anything yet. Chickens, matches, series - it is wise not to tempt fate in any contest involving Australia. It is what makes Mother Cricket such a feared old lady.

But at the end of the third day, Australia were 180/5, only 41 runs ahead. Crucially, the men having only to return to the ground on Monday with a small bag containing their fielding clothes is Australia captain Steve Smith and David Warner.

Both of these fine players - ranked No 1 and five respectively on the ICC world Test batting ladder - were central to Australia’s chances of firstly wiping out the unexpected 139-run deficit before fleshing out a lead to a defendable total.

However, it was their arch-nemesis that proved to be both their undoing. Rabada, running in with purpose and menace, got one to swing inwards that sliced between Warner’s bat and pad to crash into the top of off stump. The hot-headed fast bowler certainly enjoyed his success with yet another furious celebration that could once again earn the ire of match referee Jeff Crowe.

There were no such antics from Keshav Maharaj when he had Smith caught behind - the third time the left-arm spinner has dismissed the Australian captain - but the magnitude of the dismissal was no less.

With Cameron Bancroft playing on against Lungi Ngidi and Rabada also dismissing Shaun Marsh and ultimately Usman Khawaja late in the piece, the “moving day” unanimously belonged to the hosts.

In fact, the only reason Australia are still breathing is due to the elegance of Khawaja and doggedness of Mitchell Marsh. The pair erased the deficit with an 87-run partnership and provided some sort of hope for the Australian dressing-room.

But the day belonged entirely to the South Africans and De Villiers, in particular, who felt the home team had to hit back hard after the debacle in Durban last week.

“I am always fired up when we play against Australia. I have always said that growing up, it was always the team we wanted to beat. I am always motivated against these guys.

“Going down 1-0 there (Durban), I felt almost embarrassed in a way on our home soil, so we just felt that it was time for us to really get up.”

SA have not finished off the job just yet, but they have taken massive strides in order to head to Newlands with everything all square again.

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