Another drought is almost over and in three days we will have a Test match for the first time in a month. New Zealand host South Africa for what could be a very interesting series. There’s certainly a lot at stake, a 3-0 win for the tourists will see them climb to the top of the ICC rankings for the first time since they went top in the aftermath of England’s victory in the 2009 Ashes. (They were actually leapfrogged by third placed England after we whitewashed India.) At the same time, a Kiwi victory by any margin would see the Saffers fall to third and even a draw will be enough for New Zealand to go ahead of the West Indies in the rankings. I like South Africa, and generally cheer for them, but I’ll be supporting the Kiwis/the rain!
Of course, South Africa are massive favourites. New Zealand, despite the wins against Australia and Zimbabwe, still sit eighth in the table, just above Bangladesh. South Africa didn’t have an incredible home summer, 1-1 against Australia and 2-1 against Sri Lanka, but they have a lot about which to be optimistic. Dale Styen is still as good as he ever was and now they have Vernon Philander and Marchant De Lange to support him, giving them a very powerful pace attack. On the friendly wickets of New Zealand they should be able to run riot. Even in the victory at Hobart the Kiwis’ batting looked fragile and I don’t expect a lot from them against the world class attack of South Africa. What New Zealand will have to do is find a batsman who can play a proper innings. (Other than Vettori.) Ross Taylor stood up against Zimbabwe and was supported by Brendan McCullum (surprisingly) and the young wicketkeeper BJ Watling. They will find the going orders of magnitude tougher against South Africa, but if they are going to get anything out of the series they are going to need more innings like those. Their best hope might be for Philander and De Lange to fail to replicate their form from South Africa’s home summer. Both are young and fairly unproven so that is a possibility. There is also the fact that there are no warmups ahead of the Test series, though that could work both ways. Certainly the last thing New Zealand will want is for McCullum to try to play an ODI innings against Steyn in a Test.
It might be a bit more interesting when South Africa bat though. New Zealand are developing a very good attack of their own. Chris Martin and Doug Bracewell aren’t as good as the South Africans, however, and they have a much tougher batting order against whom to bowl. Still, South Africa collapsed badly against Sri Lanka twice at home, so the vulnerabilities are there. They still have questions to answer about the top of the order ahead of their all-important trip to England next summer, certainly, and whilst this series will provide them a good chance to try to answer those questions it also means the Kiwis have a potential opening. If South Africa simply bat to the best of their ability they should be able to post comfortable scores, but I think they underestimate New Zealand at their peril. It wasn’t the greatest ever Australian lineup that collapsed in Hobart, but nor was it their worst. It contained the same group of players that went on to get big scores against India. If South Africa are too casual New Zealand have the talent to spring a surprise.
Ultimately, I don’t think South Africa will take anything lightly and should ease to victory. As promising as New Zealand have looked in their last two Tests there is still a very large gulf in class. I think it can be useful to compare sides by forming a combined XI, and in this case I think the only Kiwi would be Daniel Vettori. It pains me, but I think South Africa are a good enough side that they will win 3-0.