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At 10.30am New Zealand time on Wednesday, South Africa begin their quest for world Test supremacy at Dunedin’s University Oval. The Proteas have to whitewash New Zealand 3-0 to achieve this status.
We examine the two sides in the three departments ahead of the first Test.
BATTING – SOUTH AFRICA
Strengths: The top six remains one of the most powerful units in the world. There has been more movement within it over the past home season than over the previous two years, but those that have come in are showing signs of cementing their positions for the long term.
The main casualty from that glorious run the Proteas enjoyed in 2008-09 is, of course, Ashwell Prince. The tenacious left-hander never quite eased back into his middle-order slot after being asked to open then, and suffered because of it. Jacques Rudolph slots into Prince’s No6 spot after initially being tried as an opener after his five-year absence from the national team.
Rudolph’s move down the order opened the path for Alviro Petersen to be recalled alongside Graeme Smith, and just as he did on debut at Kolkata in 2009 against India, Petersen scored a century in his comeback match at Newlands in this year’s New Year Test against Sri Lanka.
Rudolph also hit an unbeaten half-century in his first innings in the heart of the Proteas line-up.
Smith has an injury cloud hanging over him after being hit by Morne Morkel in the nets during the one-day series, but should recover in time for the trip down south, while Jacques Kallis, Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers will provide the majority of South Africa’s runs in this series.
Weaknesses: Smith’s injury is not a major worry should he not recover in time as Rudolph would then slot straight back into face the new ball, with JP Duminy returning in the middle-order.
However, do Rudolph or Duminy have the mental resolve going forward that Prince illustrated so many times when South Africa needed a warrior to bat with the tail in a rearguard effort?
This series will go a long way to providing clarity on this matter.
The main focus will, though, undoubtedly be on wicketkeeper Mark Boucher.
The veteran gloveman had a wretched run in the Sri Lanka series, fuelling speculation ever further that he is close to retirement. However, the Proteas team management have emphatically placed their trust in the 36-year-old, which has left his future, and more importantly his place in the touring squad to England in July, firmly in his hands.
BATTING – NEW ZEALAND
Strengths: Captain Ross Taylor is expected back after missing almost the entire New Zealand home summer through a calf injury. Taylor’s return would be a huge boost to the Kiwis as he is the only home batsman to average over 40 – 42.85 – in the longest format of the game.
His last innings was also an unbeaten 122 before he was forced to retire hurt.
New Zealand generally tend to scrape together totals through contributions from their lower-order, which is usually spearheaded by that never-say-die all-rounder Daniel Vettori.
Weaknesses: Unfortunately, New Zealand simply don’t have the quality of batsmen to put South Africa under pressure in the longest format of the game.
The top-order has perennially been suspect to the short ball, with their techniques being horribly exposed, while the swinging ball will also be a factor.
Opener Martin Guptill suffered the most on the recent tour of Australia where he was routinely caught in the slip cordon.
Inexperience is New Zealand’s biggest problem. It is not so much in age, although 21-year-old Kane Williamson will have a key role to play in this series. It is more the lack of international Test exposure the Kiwi top six has had.
Even the skipper, Taylor, has played in only 34 Tests since his debut in 2007.
Advantage: South Africa, simply because of their greater experience and quality within their ranks.
However, if Brendon McCullum fires at the top and gets support from Ryder, Taylor and perhaps Guptill or Williamson, New Zealand may have a chance to get into the series.
BOWLING – SA
Strengths: The Proteas could hit the Black Caps with a four-pronged pace attack, and that is not counting Kallis’s contribution with the ball.
There is no doubt coach Gary Kirsten will be tempted to unleash rookie Marchant de Lange on the Kiwis along with Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and the irrepressible Vernon Philander.
The fascinating factor of the quartet would be that they are all entirely different bowlers. Steyn swings the ball at pace, Morkel generates steep bounce, Philander nibbles it both ways off a good length, while De Lange will charge in armed with a venomous yorker.
The Proteas don’t also need to put all their eggs in one basket such are the options available to Smith at the moment.
He also has leg-spinner Imran Tahir to call on, who could pose the Kiwis, especially their tail, all sorts of problems.
Weaknesses: It is the entire bowling attack’s first visit to New Zealand, where conditions are completely foreign to what they are accustomed to.
The scheduling of the Test matches in terms of dates and venues, especially the first match in Dunedin, could catch the Proteas cold because that’s what can be expected down there – icy temperatures.
They have also in the past been slow starters, most notably at Lord’s in 2008 where Steyn and Morkel could not find any rhythm.
The jury is also still out on Tahir, whether in fact he is South Africa’s No 1 Test spinner, especially in terms of the Proteas’ gameplan where the slow bowler has routinely been used in the “holding” role.
BOWLING – NZ
Strengths: It all actually started under the guidance of Proteas bowling coach Allan Donald when he was still occupying the same role at the Black Caps last year.
The Kiwis have discovered a group of fast-medium bowlers who can generate good pace in order to be successful at Test level.
Youngsters such as Tim Southee and Doug Bracewell are top of this crop, with Southee showing an aggressive streak in the one-day and T20 series that he will surely bring along to the Test arena.
Veteran opening bowler Chris Martin is the main threat, though, and will be keen to show he has lost none of the zip that earned him a career-best 11-wicket haul against the Proteas at Eden Park on South Africa’s last visit here back in 2004.
Vettori also remains a wily old fox and has in the past had South Africa under his spell, primarily due to his impeccable control which creates pressure further down,
Weaknesses: It is hard to see New Zealand picking up 20 Proteas wickets, but if the surfaces do offer a bit of assistance to the seamers, this young Kiwi attack could surprise.
South Africa are also prone to a batting meltdown in every series, like in the Durban Boxing Day Test, almost on annual basis, and there is no better team than New Zealand to pounce on any such vulnerabilities.
Advantage: The visitors.
They might take a while to get going, but South Africa’s pace attack will devour the Kiwis once they find their beat in terms of the prevailing weather conditions and surfaces.
FIELDING – SA and NZ
Both teams place a big emphasis on this aspect of the game and rank among the best in the game.
In South Africa’s favour De Villiers returns to the slip cordon after being behind the stumps in the limited-overs series, which is a significant boost to the Proteas.
The Kiwis don’t have any rank bad fielders, with even Jesse Ryder pulling his weight at gully or in the slips.
Advantage: To neither team, although the one-day series showed that when the momentum is against the Kiwis, their usual high standard starts to drop. – Weekend Argus