South Africa were 263 for seven at the close, a lead of 20 runs after Australia were bowled out for 243 in their first innings.
There was a flurry of wickets after tea but De Villiers counter-attacked to hit 74 not out off 81 balls with easily the most aggressive batting of an otherwise slow day.
“He’s an amazing player,” said Australian all-rounder Mitchell Marsh. “He’s done it for so long. We need to find a way to nullify him as quickly as possible. That’s going to be a great challenge for us. Hopefully we can find a way to get him out.”
It was the second outstanding innings in the series by De Villiers, who made 71 not out in the first innings of the first Test in Durban before being run out for nought in the second innings as South Africa slipped to a 118-run defeat.
De Villiers’ innings was in complete contrast to the struggles of his teammates against superb reverse swing bowling. Dean Elgar made 57 and Hashim Amla scored 56, but they took 197 and 143 balls respectively to do it.
Only one wicket, that of nightwatchman Kagiso Rabada, fell between the start of play and the afternoon tea break. But it was painfully slow going. Only 43 runs were scored in 26 overs between lunch and tea, before a flurry of wickets and De Villiers’ batting enlivened the evening’s play.
“I thought the middle session was as good (an example of) Test cricket as you will see. We weren’t taking wickets but we felt in the game the whole session. South Africa batted extremely well to get through that period when the ball was reverse swinging and then we got our rewards later in the day,” added Marsh.
AB de Villiers in Tests since his comeback:— Bharath Seervi (@SeerviBharath) March 10, 2018
5 50s in 10 innings.
No big knocks, but very influential as most of these have been low-scoring Tests. #SAvAus
Amla also hailed the quality of the cricket. “Today was a tough day of Test cricket and I think those people who are Test match lovers will appreciate the skill of the bowlers and at times, especially when AB was batting, the skill of the batting,” he said.
South Africa’s quest for a series-levelling win was given added impetus by a pending disciplinary hearing which could result in fast bowler Rabada being banned for the remaining two Tests after his shoulder made contact with Australian captain Steve Smith on Friday.
Australia were frustrated for long periods by Elgar Amla, but the tourists were right back in the game after tea.
Amla was bowled by a fast, reverse swinging yorker from Mitchell Starc for 56 four balls after tea and Elgar was caught behind off Josh Hazlewood for 57 in the next over. Like Amla, Elgar fell to a full delivery which swung late.
Medium-pacer Marsh trapped South African captain Faf du Plessis and Theunis de Bruyn leg before wicket, again with full, swinging deliveries.
De Villiers and Quinton de Kock put on 44 for the seventh wicket before De Kock was bowled by off-spinner Nathan Lyon with a ball which spun sharply past the outside edge of his bat.
While other batsmen had struggled to gain any momentum to the South African innings, De Villiers looked at ease and played strokes to all parts of the ground in reaching a half-century off 62 balls with ten fours. By the close he had faced 81 balls and hit 14 boundaries.
Australia delayed taking the second new ball until the 90th over but De Villiers and Vernon Philander survived until the close.
England have been playing one-day international cricket since 1971. The Three Lions lost the first-ever ODI in history to arch-rivals Australia in Melbourne. That five-wicket loss set the tone for what was to come.
From there to mid-2015, their 1992 World Cup final appearance against Pakistan aside, 50-over competition had been the Achilles heel of English Cricket. Those heels dragged along for too long, leaving a trail of failures.
England chopped, changed and searched for answers to get better, but other ODI nations progressed to extend that withering trail.
Winding the clock back doesn’t bring to the fore resplendent memories for England fans but it’s worth reminding that for all the disappointments that were easier to shrug off, three years and one day ago to be precise, the nation’s cricket lovers experienced what it felt like to hit rock bottom. That came when Bangladesh paceman Rubel Hossain had just sent James Anderson’s stumps flying into the Adelaide abyss and the Tigers celebrated a famous 15-run victory in the 2015 World Cup, sending Eoin Morgan’s men crashing out in the group stages.
At that moment, English Cricket was on its knees but sometimes in life those moments – although they may not feel like that at the time – shape one’s destiny. The barometer back then was so low that it gave England the chance to draw a line under the past and get to grips with the blood and thunder attacking style of the modern game.
It’s taken three years to change the atmospheric pressure on that same barometer as a result of steady building under Morgan and head coach Trevor Bayliss, but it’s now England who are pressuring those around them to keep pace ahead of the 2019 World Cup on their own patch.
Saturday’s victory over New Zealand at the Hagley Oval sealed a 3-2 series success, England’s sixth on the bounce and ninth out of their past 10 ODI assignments. Time will fly until next May, and if England can sustain this level of form, in home conditions, hopes of a maiden 50-over World Cup triumph should spring eternal.
South Africa and India are among those who will provide strong challenges, whereas Pakistan cannot be ruled out given their ability to conjure up brilliance out of nothing and spoil a party – much like they did in the summer of 2016 when they knocked out Champions Trophy favourites England, in their own backyard, en-route to that famous final win against India at the Oval.
Too often optimism can lead to a false dawn but this feels different, England have done a lot of the ground work and talking already. Their side is made up of cricketers who back themselves to perform and deliver in those pressure moments, on the biggest stages. Jonny Bairstow, a case in point. Two back-to-back centuries, with his knock of 104 from 58 balls being the third-fastest ton by an Englishman, cementing his opener spot.
He is just one man in a line-up of settled cricketers who all seem clear with their role in the side, whether with bat and ball, and how they bring that together to the fore as a cohesive unit. Having a man with the star quality of Ben Stokes to call upon is of course a huge thing too.
Given the frenetic pace of the cricketing calendar things can unravel and change quickly but that shouldn’t worry England in the slightest as they are exactly where they want to be as an ODI force ahead of further challenges to come against Australia and India at home this summer. Big strides are being made towards the end goal.
Jonny Bairstow continued his imperious form with the fastest century by an England opener to seal a sixth successive one-day international series win with a seven-wicket trouncing of New Zealand.
Chris Woakes and Adil Rashid shared six wickets to restrict the hosts to an under-par 223 all out after Eoin Morgan won the toss in his 200th ODI.
Then Bairstow (104) hit six sixes and nine fours in his 58-ball century, the third-fastest by any Englishman, as his opening stand of 155 with Alex Hales (61) made memorably short work of New Zealand in this showdown decider which fell flat for most of a sell-out crowd at Hagley Oval.
England had 17.2 overs to spare as they extended a series-winning sequence which dates back almost 12 months exactly to a 3-0 success in the West Indies.
Bairstow was intent on completing the job in style, following his century in Dunedin three days ago with another brutal innings – including 22 off one over from leg-spinner Ish Sodhi.
Hales, back in place of the injured Jason Roy for his first match of the series and since he announced his white-ball-only future, was no slouch either and passed 2,000 ODI runs for his trouble.
Morgan’s men have won nine of their last 10 50-over series as they build towards a home World Cup next year.
Their latest, 3-2 against opponents who pushed them hard in a succession of tight finishes elsewhere, was never in any doubt from the moment New Zealand began fluffing their lines against some exemplary new-ball bowling from Woakes and Mark Wood.
Mitchell Santner (67) continued his prolific series, and Henry Nicholls (55) hit form too, in a seventh-wicket stand of 84 – but ultimately they managed only to delay the inevitable.
New Zealand lost Colin Munro in the first over to Woakes (three for 32), for a second-ball duck in the first over when he mistimed an attempted leg-side flick to loop an easy catch for Jos Buttler.
Kane Williamson got an inside-edge on to his stumps when Wood went wide on the crease – and then England’s spinners took over, bowling in tandem and each straight through their 10 overs.
Rashid (three for 42) had Tom Latham clipping to midwicket and foiled Martin Guptill’s attempt to anchor a faltering innings too when the opener poked a drive to cover three short of his 50.
YEESSSS! We win the series 3️⃣-2️⃣!! 🙌🏴
— England Cricket (@englandcricket) March 10, 2018
Mark Chapman, back in place of injured lynchpin Ross Taylor, failed to score before trying to dab rather than defend a length ball from Moeen Ali – and paid with the loss of his off-bail.
With Colin de Grandhomme soon gone too, holing out off Rashid, at 93 for six Santner and Nicholls were the last hope of a telling partnership.
They delivered all that could reasonably be expected, putting on 84, Nicholls with a 73-ball half-century on his home ground and Santner capping his remarkable series from number eight with a new career-best.
Santner finished with 216 runs in four innings – at an average of 108 – before he fell to the first of two outstanding outfield catches in the 49th over off Woakes.
In a match which did not live up to its billing as a fitting tussle for a hard-fought series, Bairstow at least ensured a spectacle as he dominated the ruthless chase until he had to go after dislodging his own stumps as he made room to try to dispatch another boundary off Trent Boult.
It made precious little difference, despite the late departures of Hales and Morgan too before Ben Stokes hit a huge six off Sodhi for the winning runs.