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Like de Villiers 'had never been away'

AB de Villiers has been out of action since injuring his elbow at the Caribbean Premier League CPL/Sportsfile

In his 239th List A match, AB de Villiers was at the ground 20 minutes before any of his team-mates and was already warming up when they got there. Even though he had been doing this kind of thing for more than 12 years de Villiers was, as he said in the week leading up to the match, nervous.

He had been out of action for more than six months, nursing an elbow injury that required surgery. His comeback had been delayed three times, ahead of a Test series against New Zealand in August, ODIs against Australia in October and then the Sri Lanka Tests in December. He had plenty to prove.

"I know there will be a lot of eyes on me. I would like to prove that I can still play," de Villiers said on Wednesday, when he announced he would not be available for Test cricket for most of 2017.

But prove it he did. And not just in the middle in Benoni, where he struck a 103-ball 134 to take Northerns to a simple win in the CSA Provincial Challenge.

De Villiers trained with as much commitment as he has throughout his career, despite playing at a level two tiers below international. South Africa's provincial structure forms the second-rung of the domestic set-up (franchise cricket is above it) and international players are rarely available for these matches, unless they are making comebacks from long-term injuries. Vernon Philander was the last high-profile name to do so when he turned out for Western Province last season as he made a return after ankle ligament tears. Then, batsmen were overawed by the presence of a Test great. On this occasion, even some of de Villiers' team-mates were.

"We were all surprised when we saw he was the first one there but he is the ultimate professional. He had great energy around the group," Mark Charlton, Northerns' coach, told ESPNcricinfo.

Northerns were clearly buoyed. They bowled Easterns out for 199 but then began their chase in the worst way. Jonathan Vandiar was given out lbw first ball and returned to the change-room joking that he had been dismissed "for the national cause", because de Villiers would go in next, with all the runs to score and plenty of time to do it.

De Villiers joined a star-struck Victor Mahlangu who had asked Charlton before the game: "If I bat with AB, what should I say to him?" Charlton's answer was "just treat AB like any other player".

"I said to the guys before the game that when you are playing with a great player, you need to rise to the occasion and not go into a shell," he added.

The pair shared in a second-wicket stand of 94 before Grant Thomson accompanied de Villiers for an even bigger partnership of 106 to finish the game. Both Mahlangu and Thomson were spectators to a dominant display, which Charlton said suggests de Villiers is back to his best. "He looked in superb touch, like he had never been away. He has an ability to always find a gap in the field which is just unbelievable. His elbow looked 100% fine. There was not strapping or anything like that. I would say he is good to go."

The selectors agreed: De Villiers has been added to South Africa's squad for the third T20 against Sri Lanka, which will be played at Newlands on Wednesday, and should then lead the ODI team in a five-match series at home before heading to New Zealand for a T20 and five more ODIs. That means Northerns are unlikely to see de Villiers any time soon and he made sure he left them with some food for thought.

"After the game, he had a talk with the guys and told them about a few of things he had noticed about individuals and about the team," Charlton said. "We feel so proud to have someone like AB involved in our set-up."