Australia v South Africa, 3rd Test, Perth, 3rd day December 2, 2012

The AB de Villiers of old returns

Is it a coincidence that AB de Villiers played his most compelling innings since becoming South Africa's wicketkeeper in the Test that he had to keep the least?

Welcome back, AB de Villiers.

Before this weekend, cricket fans the world over were looking for you. Most of them thought they would find the real you the day the wicketkeeping gloves were taken away. You can't blame them. In nine innings before this one, the most you scored was 47 and the numbers cannot convey how out of character you looked.

No one doubted your determination. After chasing a short and wide ball at the Gabba, you put on your patient face and scored 29 in over two hours to play your part in saving the first Test. In Adelaide, your persistence was greater. One of your best friends, Faf du Plessis, said he had never seen you so cautious or enduring. For the 220 balls you faced and more than four hours you spent at the crease, you had 33 runs to show for it. You should have had a lifebuoy as well.

Without your presence, du Plessis admitted he may not have been calm or clear-headed. Without your experience, he would have not had guidance and without your gentle coaxing, he may not have been as defensive.

You did the right thing when you brought out block after block, so many you could have built the Lego man many times over. But something about it didn't seem like you. The de Villiers who would race against a ball being flung from a desperate fielders' arm just because he could win would have been out of place in that situation, but the de Villiers who always tried to create something may not have been.

That warm feeling that always followed you to the crease was replaced with the chill of a hospital corridor. Luckily it came with surgical precision too. You were not so much a pleasure to watch in that innings as you were a fascination.

We were rapt by your resolve even as we lamented your inhibition. Secretly we thought you didn't want to stay shackled for much longer. When you tapped a ball to cover and called Hashim Amla through for a single on the first day in Perth, we confirmed it. You ran Amla out, and in the next over pushed at a ball that swerved into you, and were out yourself. Another innings, another low score. We knew the drill, we did not expect the response.

You made up for it in emphatic style. All your runs in the series so far add up to less than the 169 you put on today. While Amla and Jacques Kallis had already amassed a lead that looked comfortable, it was up to you to take the cushion and turn it into a couch. You finished with a designer lazyboy.

At first you gardened a lot, as though you were marking territory. You defended, you walked down the pitch and tapped. You left one alone. And then out came the pull shot against Mitchell Starc, a gesture of some intent. You faced only six more balls before you brought out the reverse sweep. There was the de Villiers we used to know.

That shot came to symbolise your innings. In the absence of a third man, you took advantage. So much so, that you scored three in succession to bring up your hundred. You were obviously in the mood. You slogged and you swept and you ended up with more than what you scored in the explosive knock against Sri Lanka in Cape Town this January. That was a display of vibrancy and colour, and this was too.

It was always going to come, wasn't it? You said so yourself at the SCG before this series began. You had just recovered from chronic back injury, which the team manager said would have sidelined you had it not been for the World Twenty20, and said you felt as though you were only one knock away from people saying that "keeping benefitted your batting". But that fierce insistence seemed nothing more than brave words before today.

This is your first century as South Africa's permanent wicketkeeper and only fools would suggest it will be your last. You remain one of the country's most talented, fearless and exciting batsmen, although it is tough to continue being that when you are overburdened. On face value, this innings may suggest that you aren't. You certainly maintain that.

So is it just a coincidence that in the match where you spent the fewest overs in the field as wicketkeeper, you went on to your best score? You may not have noticed, but your workload before batting was significantly less in this match than it has been throughout the series.

In Brisbane, you batted first and then spent 138 overs in the field before batting again. In Adelaide it was worse: 107.2 overs upfront before your first knock and another 70 before you batted again. At Headingley in July, you kept for 126.4 overs and then scored 44 and at Lord's, for 107.3 overs before making 43. Here in Perth, you only spent 53.1 overs in the field, about 15 minutes more than you would in a one-day game.

Circumstance and pressures were different in every situation but the time factor cannot be ignored. With less overs to spend bending your back and zoning in on the field, you could bring out one of your best sides with the bat. Imagine if you had even less time to spend behind the stumps?

That thought will probably be sidelined because your innings could be the tripod on which a grand South African win is filmed. At the moment, your team-mates are full of praise and your predecessor is too. Mark Boucher was the first to celebrate your milestone, actually. He posted on Twitter that, "Nothing gives me more pleasure … honestly … than @ABdeVilliers17 having a smile on his face! Great player, great team man!!! So happy for him!!"

In some of those words lies the crux of the problem. Those who know you know that you will continue to do whatever you are told is best for the team because that is the kind of player you are. When you were made captain of the limited-overs sides, you said you wanted to build a team culture based on sacrifice of individual goals for a collective effort. What this innings makes us ask is whether, so far, you have sacrificed the most.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent