India in South Africa 2013-14 December 23, 2013

De Villiers: South Africa's man for all occasions

For a batsman who is better known for his flamboyance and strokeplay, AB de Villiers proved at the Wanderers that he also had the ability to drop anchor and rescue the team when the chips are down

Faf du Plessis proved that his Adelaide heroics were not a once-off with another match-saving century in tense circumstances in Johannesburg, and Alviro Petersen ended a run drought that has stretched through this year with a gritty 76 which should prolong his time at the top of the order.

But AB de Villiers, who is ranked the top Test batsman in the world, proved something too.

Apart from his flamboyance, his ability to mount a skyscraper on anything resembling a foundation and his capacity to move an innings forward, de Villiers also emphasised how well he can be depended on when the odds are stacked against South Africa. If there was ever an area de Villiers was yet to make his own, that may have been it.

It's no fault of his because de Villiers has usually has played in an environment where others have been there to absorb pressure. They rode through the choppy waters so he could surf when the going was good.

Think back to Jacques Kallis in Ahmedabad in April 2008, Ashwell Prince at Leeds the same year, and Kallis again in Abu Dhabi 2010. De Villiers' hundreds in those matches came with those men at his side. Both Kallis and Prince are known for being bridges over troubled water. They don't get frustrated when run-scoring is slow and have the ability to usher a younger player, which de Villiers was then, through tough times.

Then think of some of de Villiers most eye-catching knocks. His 160 against Sri Lanka in Cape Town in early 2012 was set up by a Kallis-Petersen stand of 205. South Africa were on top at 261 for 3 when de Villiers came in and blazed away. His 169 against Australia later that year at a strike rate above 90 followed a Graeme Smith-Hashim Amla partnership of 178 that had put South Africa into a position from which they could not lose.

There's an argument to be made that de Villiers is at his best when a stage is set for him to perform on. Because he plays a range of innovative strokes, be it lap shots that are expertly directed behind square or scoops which are so delicious-looking they could be flavours of ice cream, he is the perfect man to take the game away from an opposition.

At the Wanderers, he showed how he could also be the perfect man to drop the anchor and keep the team in the game. He played a strategically smart innings, in which he took no risks but reaped rich rewards by wearing down India's attack slowly.

His defence was a mild and sustained form of attack. Runs did not rain as they usually do off his bat. Instead, they dripped consistently. By keeping the scoring rate at above three an over, he ensured South Africa never stagnated and that India always had to keep one eye on what they were conceding. Perhaps unintentionally, de Villiers' approach put South Africa in a position to register a record-breaking win.

"I told Faf early in my innings that I was not there just to block out the day, I would try and score the whole time," de Villiers said. "I'd stick within my game plans but try and score so that MS [Dhoni] couldn't set too attacking a field. I always wanted him to feel like we've got a chance if we bat the whole day. We did that well. It was important for me to keep that positive mindset."

De Villiers countered pressure with productivity, and a thorough analysis will show he has threatened to do that throughout his career. As early as his fifth Test, he showed he could prosper when the chips were down when South Africa were playing England in Centurion and conceded a deficit of 112. De Villiers was opening the batting then and scored his maiden century to keep England at bay in the second innings.

Since then, he has not had too many more opportunities to save South Africa - his 83 in Hamilton in March 2012 being one of the few occasions. It's hardly a surprise that he wasn't sure he could knuckle down properly until he was forced to in Adelaide last year. "I always felt I had that potential to bat out time, maybe not early in my career but later on," he said. "You can always break those barriers and I realised that again in Adelaide."

There, de Villiers played completely uncharacteristically in that his only concern was to dead-bat everything. He spent more than four hours at the crease and faced 220 balls. He had 33 runs to show for it but that hardly mattered because he played his part in saving the game. "I said I was going to face as many dot balls as possible," he said. "I always felt like if we could draw that Test, we would win the series, which we did."

In Johannesburg, de Villiers allowed his natural game to peep through the wall of defence because he thought South Africa may have a shot at victory. "I felt if we could bat out the day, we would draw the game but I also felt if I was there at the end of the day, we could win it. That's a different mindset and I was a little bit naughty at times looking for a few runs here and there, which I didn't do in Adelaide."

By getting the balance right, de Villiers gave South Africa more than a decent chance of snatching a win, but he needed to stick around for that to happen. He didn't. Still, that doesn't change the fact that de Villiers is always a reliable option. The numbers, too, tell a story. He averages 53.2 coming in at No. 4 or No. 5 when South Africa are 100 or less for 3 or 4 wickets. He has hit three centuries and 11 fifties from these 36 innings. When the score is 50 or less, he has averaged 63.3, with a double-century, a century and two fifties.

It's simple: de Villiers is their batsman for any occasion, be it a colourful one, or a crisis.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent