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February 28, 2009
In the lead-up to this match AB de Villiers spoke of his desire to become the best batsman in the world. It's a bold ambition for a player currently sitting 21st on the ICC's Test batting rankings. But for a man who has just turned 25 and has enjoyed the most prolific year of his career, it's a commendable aspiration.
The first step would be to develop into the leading batsman in his own side and on the third day at the Wanderers he was without question South Africa's star. de Villiers came in at a precarious 49 for 3 and together with Neil McKenzie slowly put things back on track. That there was a further derailment later in the innings was not de Villiers' fault.
His brilliant 104 was his fifth Test century since the start of 2008, a calendar year that brought him 1061 runs at 58.94. In the four Tests against Australia in the past couple of months he has been South Africa's leading scorer with 347 runs, ahead of acknowledged champions like Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis.
To achieve that feat batting from No. 5 deserves extra credit. When he spoke of his desire to become the world's best batsman he specifically pointed out that it was next to impossible to manage that while coming in at five or six. de Villiers wants to bat at No. 4 and with Kallis struggling for form it would not be the worst move for South Africa to make a middle-order switch.
In four of his five most recent hundreds de Villiers has been left unbeaten, sometimes due to declaration, sometimes because he had run out of partners and once, memorably, because he had orchestrated the world's second highest Test run chase. On this occasion, when he walked off the Wanderers with 104 next to his name, his team-mates had lacked the ability to stay alive in the difficult conditions that de Villiers had mastered.
His first 100 balls brought 34 runs as survival was the primary objective. An inexperienced attack made up of Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus didn't give away many scoring opportunities. In general his partners didn't fall due to lack of patience but because of an inability to fend off the dangerous swinging, seaming or bouncing balls.
That was not a problem for de Villiers, whose eyes were good. Australia tried to bowl fuller than South Africa had and when de Villiers was given opportunities to drive he did so with excellent timing and judgment. As his colleagues came and went, he lifted his rate and managed to reach his century with a forceful pull to the boundary off Hilfenhaus.
His final contribution of 104 out of 220 was a mammoth effort in trying circumstances. Since the tour of Australia he has had his wisdom teeth removed but clearly hasn't lost any smarts. For a man who made his Test debut at 20 - incidentally the same age as Australia's Phillip Hughes - nearly five years at the highest level has been invaluable.
"I've worked on a few things over the last few years and it's coming together pretty nicely," de Villiers said. "If anything I'm just taking my opportunities better than ever. When I get to 50 I try and make sure that I get to 100. My technique has got better of the last few years and I'm obviously a better player with experience."
Going on to capitalise on his fifties has been a notable feature of his play in recent months. Of the past eight times he has reached 50 in a Test innings he has turned it into three figures on five occasions. This is a man who has learnt the art of fulfilling his promise.
It is fitting that he spoke of converting starts during his 50th Test. If he can also turn that half-century into a hundred, South African cricket will be all the better for it. It might even give him a chance of becoming the world's best.
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