JOHANNESBURG - AB de Villiers was utilising every iota of skill and applying all of his will to wrench back control of this second Sunfoil Test following an innings of staggering quality by Virat Kohli.
The Indian captain still very much believes his team can win this Test, but he will feel that like his own, De Villiers’s wicket is the key to unlocking the door to that victory. And the way De Villiers is playing in this South African second innings, suggests Kohli is right.
De Villiers and Kohli may be very close friends - "my brother from another mother," Kohli once said - but De Villiers - an uber competitor, although not as demonstrative in his displays of that competitiveness as Kohli - wants to win a game here, and that means he can’t allow Kohli’s magnificent 153 to be the defining performance of this Test.
No doubt still buoyed by his skipper’s sterling effort, Jasprit Bumrah charged in from the Hennops River End and removed both Aiden Markram and Hashim Amla - the top two scorers in South Africa’s first innings - inside six overs to leave the hosts at 3/2.
De Villiers strode to the crease, having borne close witness to one of the finest innings’ played in this country and one he will certainly have been able to appreciate - and not just because of the close bond he shares with the Indian captain.
But De Villiers would also have realised the importance of his own wicket, given the situation - SA leading by just 31 runs at the time he arrived at the crease - and he’d have wanted to put his own stamp on proceedings.
De Villiers’ natural way is to attack but he needed to show care here. Ravi Ashwin was getting the ball to spin - although it must be added, the job for the right hander is much easier than is the case for the left-hand against the off-spinner - Bumrah, who’s troubled De Villiers throughout this series, was moving the ball alarmingly off the surface and Mohammed Shami even found some reverse swing.
In those many months De Villiers has spent away from Test cricket, this was the kind of scenario he’d have been preparing for. He admitted, shortly after confirming his return to the sport’s premier format, that the time away had given him an opportunity to refine parts of his technique and even learn some new tricks.
De Villiers utilised all of his prodigious talent, to not only keep India at bay, but dig his side out of a hole. His innings has not been without good fortune - probably more than Kohli had throughout his magical 379-minute effort - but De Villiers utilised that good fortune well.
He squeezed out a yorker from Bumrah's first ball for four, only just missed getting an edge trying pull the same bowler a short while later and even as he closed in on his half-century, the outside edge of his bat was beaten twice by Bumrah.
There were six fours, including a couple of classic straight drives and a square cut off Ashwin that saw the ball scream to the boundary. It’s been a stunning display for 98 minutes. It needs to last a lot longer for South Africa to properly gain the ascendancy.
In support De Villiers has Dean Elgar, less fluent, but ferociously gritty, who as his innings stretched on, found the middle of the bat more often. Elgar’s never been about the aesthetics, it’s more about effectiveness and 36 not out in 118 minutes has hitherto been mighty effective.
The match right now rests on two of the great batsmen of the modern era. One has already produced an innings for the ages, the other is trying to match him. If he does - he condemns the Indian captain’s innings to a footnote in the context of this match - and even though it’s a close friend of his, AB de Villiers will love that.
The Proteas finished day three on 90/2, after scoring 335 in their first innings. India scored 307.