Summon the spin doctors
After thrashing South Africa 5-1 in the one-day series, New Zealand go into the Tests - the first of which starts at Hamilton on Wednesday - believing that they can repeat their short-game success. New Zealand have never beaten South Africa in a Test series, losing seven and drawing two, but that statistic won't worry Stephen Fleming - before this series, New Zealand had only won two of their last 18 ODIs against South Africa.
The main talking-point on the eve of the Test, though, is not the form of either team, but the nature of the pitch. Torrential rain over the last month - 330mm of it was recorded in February, according to the Otago Times, five times the norm - has significantly damaged the square, forcing Karl Johnson, the curator, to discard the strip that he would normally have used, and opt for one at the far end of the square. The pitch to be used over the next five days is bare - all the grass has been killed by the inclement weather - and is expected to offer plenty of assistance to spinners, which is extremely unusual for a match at Hamilton.
For one player at least, the drastically different conditions are a huge blessing. Daniel Vettori, so used to being reduced to a fringe bowler on some of the greentops which are so common in New Zealand, knows that this is a rare opportunity for him to play the lead role in a home Test. "Even the South Africans are talking about playing two spinners, so it must be a burner. It's something to look forward to," Vettori said. "It's something that comes around once in a while, and that's probably the biggest test for me in that I'll be expected to perform and hopefully play a major part in winning."
South Africa have two spin options in Paul Adams and Nicky Boje, but neither did much to inspire confidence in the tour match against Central Districts. But Eric Simons, the South African coach, put on a brave front: "A lot is always made of us battling against spin, but we're one of few sides who have won on the subcontinent," Simons said. "There's nothing there that frightens us too much."
What would worry Simons is the form of his main batsmen: Jacques Kallis mustered just 120 runs in the one-day series, while Herschelle Gibbs managed 144. Gibbs failed in the tour game as well, scoring only 18 and 26. The only encouragement was Neil McKenzie's form - unbeaten knocks of 100 and 49 have made him a certainty in the starting line-up.
New Zealand's batsmen have been in much better form. Fleming has been in the runs all season, while Michael Papps - so impressive in the one-dayers - is a welcome addition to a side which has struggled to find a reliable opening partner for Mark Richardson. New ZEaland's other debutant is Brendon McCullum, the wicketkeeper, who wins his first Test cap after playing in 48 ODIs.
The Test should also be a battle between two allrounders, both on the threshold of significant landmarks. Chris Cairns needs three wickets and 136 runs to achieve the double of 3000 runs and 200 wickets, while Shaun Pollock, who already has 326 scalps in the bag, needs 132 runs to join the elite club which currently boasts only five members: Garry Sobers, Ian Botham, Kapil Dev, Imran Khan and Richard Hadlee.
Meanwhile, Michael Mason and Ian Butler have been released from the New Zealand squad, and will join the A team for the game against Sri Lanka A on March 11. That leaves Chris Martin and Paul Wiseman to fight for the last place in the XI. Given the condition of the pitch, Wiseman should be a shoo-in.
New Zealand 1 Mark Richardson, 2 Michael Papps, 3 Stephen Fleming (capt), 4 Scott Styris, 5 Craig McMillan, 6 Chris Cairns, 7 Jacob Oram, 8 Brendon McCullum (wk), 9 Daniel Vettori, 10 Paul Wiseman, 11 Daryl Tuffey.
South Africa (from) 1 Graeme Smith (capt), 2 Herschelle Gibbs, 3 Gary Kirsten, 4 Jacques Kallis, 5 Jacques Rudolph, 6 Neil McKenzie, 7 Martin van Jaarsveld, 8 Mark Boucher, 9 Shaun Pollock, 10 Nicky Boje, 11 Paul Adams, 12 Andre Nel, 13 Makhaya Ntini, 14 Albie Morkel, 15 David Terbrugge.