TELFORD VICE, Cape Town
BEFORE Wednesday, AB de Villiers had pulled a South Africa shirt of whatever format over his head 383 times.
That’s enough, you would think, to take the edge off doing so for the 384th time.
You would think wrong.
“He was nervous,” Russell Domingo said. “It was almost as though he was making his debut.
“He was very edgy and said he felt like he was playing for the first time.
“It’s great – it shows how much it still means to perform.
“That’s exciting for us, because it’s almost like a bit of a rebirth for him after he’s had seven months off.
“He’s fresh and really desperate to do well.”
In the broader sense Wednesday’s match was the third T20 between South Africa and Sri Lanka at Newlands, and it came with its own importance as the series decider.
But the focus was squarely on De Villiers, who has been kept out of international cricket since June by an elbow injury.
De Villiers is never out of mind, even when he is out of sight, and his withdrawal last week from the test series South Africa will play against New Zealand, England and Bangladesh in the coming months only served to disquiet his compatriots and sharpen the focus on him.
So perhaps he felt as if he needed a reason for South Africans to be cheerful about his return.
He gave them exactly that by coming in at No. 3 in the fifth over and scoring 63, an innings that stood in stark relief to much of the rest of South Africa’s performance in a match in which only two of their other players reached 20, the bowling – aside from Imran Tahir’s 3/18 – lacked discipline and five catches were dropped.
“He played the situation really well,” Domingo said.
“We always wanted him to have some time at the crease with the one-day series coming up, instead of coming to have a bit of a tonk at the end (of the innings).
“In my opinion he’s unbelievable in the last seven or eight overs if he can find himself set at that stage.
“So he played really well and we’re pleased he has some runs behind his name.
“He spent some time in the middle and we can focus all our energies on the one-day series.”
Fifty-nine minutes, in fact, in which De Villiers faced 44 balls, hit two fours and three sixes, and looked like he had never been away.
Sri Lanka nonetheless won by three wickets with a ball to spare to claim their first series in the nine rubbers they have played in this country.
It was also the first time in six series – five of them played without De Villiers – that South Africa have finished on the wrong side of the equation, and they won 13 of the 16 games they played in his absence.
That’s evidence that South Africa have found ways not only to survive but to prosper despite the hole De Villiers’ leaves.
But his performance on Wednesday reminded all who saw it that he remains a better player than most others in any team.
Nevertheless, finding space for De Villiers, particularly in the more settled test team – if and when he makes himself available in that format – looms as a challenge.
The small mercy, then, is that the question won’t arise for most of 2017.
“The worst thing about it is that he’s not going to play for us,” Domingo said.
“The best thing is it gives everyone else a bit of, not peace of mind, but there’s clarity.
“There’s no-one looking over their shoulder wondering if they might be the one to go if AB comes back.
“So it gives the batsmen some breathing space to knuckle down and focus on their game and not be too concerned about when AB de Villiers is coming back.”
The batsmen in South Africa’s ODI squad don’t have that luxury.
That series starts at St George’s Park on Saturday when De Villiers, nervous or not, will again pull a South Africa shirt over his head.