De Villiers revels in being cast as villain to silence the terraces

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There will perhaps be those who fear that the austerity of South Africa's batting this summer offers a hazardous contrast to the glib temptations of Twenty20. But the whole point of Test cricket is an eponymous one – the examination of character – and few can any longer question where that leaves Abraham Benjamin de Villiers.

On the first morning, he had been cast as pantomime villain after claiming to have caught a ball that might well have killed a mole first. None was more incensed than Michael Vaughan, who left him in no doubt of his views at the lunch interval. De Villiers listened to the England captain in silence, reserving his own response until he had a bat in his hand.

On Saturday he had batted for four hours in a sweater; yesterday, though it was far cooler, he came out with his shirt billowing. Plainly, he was only just warming up. And the very first ball set a morbid tone. De Villiers turned it fine, and Monty Panesar drowsily permitted him to scuttle back for a second run – a cameo greeted with predictable, fatuous delight on the Western Terrace.

No doubt the few, obnoxious boos that leavened the applause for his century were of similar authorship. By that stage, however, the majority had come to acknowledge the fortitude, forbearance and flexibility of an exceptional cricketer.

This, after all, is the man who produced one of the most extravagant Test match shots of the year in April, hoisting Harbhajan Singh onto the roof at Ahmedabad with so much horsepower that he ended up rocking on his backside.

Batting like a Catherine wheel that day, he ended up with the first double century scored by a South African against India. But here he showed the bedrock of his talent – and, in the process, the difference between the summer's two touring parties. The New Zealanders could bat with flair, too, but lacked mettle. De Villiers spent so long on 99 that he almost seemed to be making a point of his indifference.

Andrew Flintoff suspected otherwise, the vintage generosity of his comeback – as usual, the inadequacies of others condemned him to 40 overs on the treadmill – reaching a peak of endeavour during this vignette. At one point, after appealing for a catch behind, he offered De Villiers his second lecture of the match. There was plenty of elaboration from the Western Terrace, needless to say, so it was edifying to see so many of the England players go out of their way to congratulate De Villiers as they left the field at lunchtime.

If they knew him better, however, the buffoons and barrackers would doubtless find a great deal more in this clean-cut, religious young man to revolt their stupefied sensibilities – whether these are best described as post-imperial, or merely postprandial. Still only 24, De Villiers chose cricket ahead of the chance not only to play fly half at provincial level, but to join Nick Bollettieri's tennis academy in Florida. In his first Test match, he opened the batting; in his second, he kept wicket. When three bowlers were injured, against Zimbabwe, he volunteered for his maiden spell of first-class bowling and promptly took two wickets. Now, after 73 Test innings without a duck, he is just two short of Aravinda de Silva's record. Sixty-eight summers ago, young men like this were coming from South Africa to shoot down Heinkels. In contrast, this was shooting fish in a barrel. After losing Mark Boucher, De Villiers extended his repertoire, driving lavishly. Ultimately it took a kingfisher's swoop from Flintoff to get rid of him.

If Ryan Sidebottom's problems can be traced to the beds he has been sleeping in, last night several others will have been looking to join him for a long lie down.