De Villiers made a magnificent 126 not out and took South Africa to a likely series-levelling position on the third day of the second Test against Australia at St George’s Park on Sunday.
After taking a first-innings lead of 139, South Africa reduced Australia to 180 for five at the close, a slender lead of 41 with only five wickets remaining.
“I was very motivated to prove that I can still play this game,” said De Villiers, whose performance was described by his former captain Graeme Smith as “one of the great Test innings”.
De Villiers did not play Test cricket between January 2016 and December 2017, after he decided he needed time away from the game.
“I was very motivated to prove to everyone that I can still play the game, even though I have been away for a while,” he said.
De Villiers insisted he had never fallen out of love with the five-day format.
“I was just tired of playing. I was just flat, physically and mentally. There were other factors, I had become a dad, there were a lot of things happening in my life. I felt I needed to breathe a bit.”
Against a powerful Australian bowling attack, on a pitch where other batsmen had struggled to score freely, De Villiers made batting look easy. He played some breathtaking strokes in hitting 20 fours and a six in a 146-ball innings.
“He is one of the best players in the world, if not the best,” said Australian bowling coach David Saker. “It seemed like he was batting on a different wicket to everyone else.”
– First Test ton in three years –
De Villiers claimed he was nervous as he approached his 22nd Test century, his sixth against Australia and his first against any opponents in more than three years.
He celebrated exuberantly when he reached the mark with an upper cut for four against Pat Cummins.
“It was right up there with the best feeling ever,” he said. “I was very nervous in the nineties.”
He told batting partner Vernon Philander that he was struggling to breathe and that his legs felt numb.
“I was constantly reminding myself through the nineties that it’s not about yourself, it’s about contributing as many runs as possible to the team. That made me a feel a little bit better,” he said.
Fast bowler Kagiso Rabada, under threat of a suspension which could rule him out of the rest of the four-Test series, followed up a five-wicket haul in the first innings by taking three of the five wickets South Africa claimed before the close.
Rabada made a key breakthrough when he bowled David Warner for 13 during a hostile opening spell in which his fastest delivery was timed at 151 kmh, then had Shaun Marsh caught behind immediately after tea.
Finally he broke a stubborn 87-run partnership between Usman Khawaja and Mitchell Marsh when he trapped Khawaja in front of his stumps for 75 in the penultimate over of the day.
Rabada was due to attend a disciplinary hearing chaired by International Cricket Council match referee Jeff Crowe after being charged with a level-two offence for making physical contact with Australian captain Steve Smith while celebrating Smith’s wicket in the first innings.
With previous offences still on his record, Rabada is likely to be banned from the remaining two Tests.
“He’s crossed the line a few times and I think he’s regretting that,” said De Villiers.
“I think it’s up to some of our senior guys to help him. It’s important for some of the players to get around him before he gets close to a batter where he can tell him, ‘I just got you out’.”
Saker said Australia had not lost hope. “We still need another 60 or 70 runs to put pressure on South Africa. We’re still comfortable that we can get a total that can be defended.”