Can a series of unequals prove to be a contest?
It might be too much to hope that the South Africa-New Zealand Test series is hard fought, but both teams have little and big goals to pursue.
Firdose Moonda – ESPN cricinfo South Africa correspondent
Both Talksport and the Wall Street Journal blog list the Ashes among their top ten international sporting rivalries. Other inclusions are India-Pakistan clashes on the cricket field and the Bledisloe Cup rugby between New Zealand and Australia. South Africa does not feature at all.
They will not be happy about that.
South Africa consider themselves some of the fiercest, toughest competitors around even when they finish second best. They reserve specials spots for their southern hemisphere opponents, against whom two of the most hotly contested battles are fought. South Africa and Australia’s cricket teams have produced the gems that are the 438 ODI and the 47-all out Test, while the All Black and Springbok rugby teams made history on numerous occasions, most notably at the 1995 Rugby World Cup final.
When the All Blacks play in Cape Town they have a healthy local support base. Mixed-race communities who have seemingly never felt represented by the Springboks have chosen to vocally support New Zealand rugby. You see them at Newlands rugby stadium, dressed in the New Zealand kit, waving the New Zealand flag and cheering on the visiting them as if it were their own.
Unfortunately for the New Zealand cricket team, they can expect none of the same support probably because, unlike their rugby side, they do not have the reputation to match the big talk. In fact, the current tour was considered such a non-event that the administrators were willing to cancel the Boxing Day Test and schedule three Twenty20s instead, in the hope of coaxing interest out of the locals.
They did better than that. All the matches were sell-outs; the South Africans now want to watch their own team. With the Test mace housed on Corlett Drive in Johannesburg and a proud unbeaten run on the road, there is belief that the South African team will now produce the same at home. Locals want to be there to see it.
That could be the saving grace ahead of what is expected to be a one-sided Test series. The facts make that statement realistic rather than disrespectful: New Zealand have only won three of the 21 Tests they’ve played in South Africa, two of those before readmission. The last time they won a Test series was the one-off against Zimbabwe in January 2011. Before that, they had success in a series against Bangladesh in 2010 (also one match) and twice in 2008, home and away.
If you’re looking for a team they earned a series win over that is not Bangladesh, you have to go back to 2006, when they beat West Indies. They have never won a series against South Africa, with their best result a draw at home in 2004.
With that in mind, this series could have very little to do with actual competition between the two sides. It will rather be a case of two teams running their own races. For South Africa, it will be about justifying their ranking and securing it. For New Zealand, it will be about surviving.
South Africa want to extend their lead at the top of the Test rankings and beating New Zealand will go a very small way to ensuring that. Even if they win the series 2-0, they will only gain one point on the table but it will open up their gap over England to six points and to 10 over Australia.
The series was also seen as a platform for South Africa to introduce new players, specifically a specialist wicketkeeper. The selectors, though, U-turned on giving Thami Tsolekile a tryout because AB de Villiers has changed his mind about taking the gloves permanently. Whether it exacerbates his chronic back conditions or not, de Villiers will keep in the series.
The only new player is batsman Dean Elgar, who made a pair on debut in Perth. He will replace Jacques Rudolph at No. 6 and be given an opportunity to see if his domestic form can translate on the international stage. Robin Peterson could also be considered in the new category as he only made a Test comeback less than a month ago. He will also have an extended run as the sole spinner in the XI. Rory Kleinveldt will play only if there is an injury to one of the premier seamers, although that looks likely at the moment with Vernon Philander nursing a hamstring strain.
New Zealand’s goals will probably be smaller and more individual-specific. They will want some of their top six batsmen to reach three figures, especially since the lack of big scores from them has been identified as one of the main reasons the team does not win more. They will want the bowlers to take 20 wickets, even if it’s in a losing cause. They may even just want to take both matches to day five, given that even their own expert, Simon Doull, suggested tickets would not be needed after day four.
Hopefully that will have raised the New Zealanders’ ire enough for them to prove that wrong. Brendon McCullum has the enormous task of being the only real senior batsman as well as leading the side. Martin Guptill is the other big hope, having had a good run of form last summer, and much will rest on the young shoulders of Kane Williamson. He will have to prop up the middle-order and resist South Africa even better than he did in Wellington in March.
New Zealand’s bowlers, like any quicks around the world, may look forward to playing on pitches with more bounce and carry than normal. They will not be getting the spicy surfaces of SuperSport Park or the Wanderers though, and will have to adjust to the more traditional cricket track at Newlands and the usually slow strip in Port Elizabeth.
Chris Martin has always done well against South Africa and he won’t want that to change. Doug Bracewell and Trent Boult have real opportunities to make a statement and if Mitchell McClenaghan is picked, he will want to show he belongs.
But wants may not come into it for New Zealand. They will have to focus on what they need to do to show that they have more character than was suggested in the lead-up to the tour. Although the Ross Taylor debacle was not the fault of any of the players, it reflected poorly on the state of New Zealand cricket as a whole. Perhaps unfairly, it is up to the team to change that.
It might be too much to hope that this series puts southern-hemisphere contests in the spotlight or gives South Africa a reason to appear on respected lists of sporting rivalries. That job is left to cricket against Australia and rugby against New Zealand. What could happen through this series though is, just as rugby against Australia is looked forward to, so could cricket against New Zealand.