AB de Villiers batted beautifully with the tail to boost South Africa's hopes of a 3-0 series win © Getty Images
 
AB de Villiers shrugged off the disappointment of missing out on his seventh Test century, and instead took pleasure in England's discomfort, after their apparently serene progression towards a consolation victory in the fourth Test at The Oval was interrupted by some doughty lower-order resistance. Having at one stage envisaged a target of little more than 100, England were left chasing an awkward 197, thanks to de Villiers' 97 and a series-best 34 from Paul Harris.

"Nineties like this, I don't really count them," said de Villiers. "Putting the team out of trouble is all I wanted to do, because I'm a team player and I always will be. My target was a lead of 250 for the boys, so I came up short by about 50 runs which was very disappointing, but my hundred wasn't really an issue. To score 97 is as good as 150 today, and I'm very happy to have given the boys a chance to pull through."

De Villiers came to the crease early on the fourth day, following the dismissal of Jacques Kallis for 9, at which stage South Africa were precariously placed, with a slender lead of 16, and only six wickets remaining. Fearlessness, however, has been a hallmark of de Villiers' cricket - as England well remember from his debut series against them in 2004-05.

On that occasion, he was asked to open the batting, keep wicket, and bat as a specialist No. 6, all in the space of four furiously contested matches, but he maintained his composure throughout, and when he reverted to his original opener's role for the final match of the rubber at Centurion, he signed off on his home ground with scores of 92 and 109, his maiden Test hundred.

That experience, one suspects, has made de Villiers pretty phlegmatic about his cricket, and today he looked after his team by looking after No. 1 first and foremost. His approach to batting with the tail was lifted straight from the Steve Waugh manual, as the confidence he brought to his own innings rubbed off on his team-mate, Harris, with whom he added an invaluable 95 for the eighth wicket.

"I knew after Harry got to 20-odd he was looking pretty comfortable at the wicket, so I gave him a bit of freedom to express himself, and back his ability," said de Villiers. "He proved me right, because he batted well. He can definitely stick around, so I just waited for him to get to 10 or 15, and get comfortable. That's when I started to focus on my own batting and get the runs where we could get them."

It was a tough test of Kevin Pietersen's rookie captaincy, and on this occasion he didn't quite nail his tactics, particularly when he called for the new ball yet posted only one slip when de Villiers was on strike. A wild swish whizzed through the vacant third slip for four, and the moment to break through was lost.


Stuart Broad kept England ahead of the game with career-best figures © Getty Images
 
"They were pretty negative to me which was expected," said de Villiers. "But it's a tough one because the new ball goes pretty quickly off the bat and you can score 50 in no time if the fielders are in the wrong spaces. Then again, I saw just one or two slips, so I had a go outside off and it worked in my favour. As soon as they put a slip in there, it would have obviously have changed my gameplan."

De Villiers' fine performance eventually came to an end when he lost his composure - and his leg stump - with Monty Panesar bowling into the leg-side rough. "It was disappointing to get out at that stage, but I wanted just to try and keep scoring," he said. "We had Andre Nel at the other end who's a real tailender, so I'd have liked to take most of the strike and keep the scoreboard ticking over."

Nevertheless, the target that South Africa have set is a sufficient challenge to leave England's batsmen with one or two doubts in their minds overnight. "I'm happy with a 197 lead," said de Villiers. "It's given us a good chance tomorrow. Our bowlers haven't really been where we know they can be in this series, and tomorrow would be a good time to hit their straps and bowl like we know they can. If we can get a couple of early ones, I don't see why we can't push through."

Nevertheless, England's leading wicket-taker in the innings, Stuart Broad, remained optimistic about his side's chances of wrapping up their consolation win. "The wicket was pretty good to bat on," said Broad. "There was a bit in it for the seamers and Monty [Panesar] but doesn't deteriorate massively. It's also a quick-scoring ground, so if we get our heads down we should knock it off."

Though Broad's figures of 3 for 44 were unremarkable, they were nonetheless his best to date in Test cricket, and another small progression in a year in which his international career has really begun to take off. Though he missed the last Test at Edgbaston because he was jaded, his return as part of a five-man attack has enabled him to bed into the junior allrounder role, and has removed that extra pressure to take wickets that had hampered him during the early part of the summer.

"You get more of a role in a four-man attack, but right now I'm being used as the fourth seamer in a five-man attack and that's about creating pressure to get my wickets," he said. "I'm thoroughly enjoying it, and though I'd love to become a strike bowler and a new-ball bowler for England, you've got to earn that right. There's always a starting place, so hopefully I'll start to nip out a few wickets and move up the pecking order a bit."

Some sympathetic handling from his new captain, Pietersen, has also aided his development. Broad was called back into the attack towards the end of South Africa's first innings - when the obvious option would have been James Anderson or Steve Harmison - and he responded with two quick scalps. Today, he performed the same trick, with two in 11 balls, to once again bring an end to South Africa's resistance.

"I'm pleased to have picked up five wickets in the game, and I hope that'll get me on a bit of a role," he said. "I'm due a haul at some stage, so hopefully that'll come next year. What has stood me in good stead, though, is that after 10 ODIs I had about five wickets, and I was thinking how am I going to get international wickets? But after 30 I've got 40-odd now. I'm used to not taking wickets at the start of my international career, so I'm not panicking. Today is a start."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo