New Zealand v South Africa, 3rd Test, Wellington March 30, 2004

Hardness blunts potential in the end

The Wisden Verdict by our New Zealand correspondent

Jacques Rudoplh: South Africa's most improved player in the Tests © AFP

South African hardness finally extinguished New Zealand potential at Wellington, and the series ended up all-square at 1-1. Few series have generated as much interest at home as this one, which produced some of the most attacking play seen from a New Zealand side in a generation.

After the near-debacle of the first Test at Hamilton, on a pitch where Andre Nel caused a crater to develop on his follow-through, two contrasting contests ensued. New Zealand had by far the better of a riveting match on the portable pitch at Eden Park in Auckland, where the batting skills of Scott Styris and Chris Cairns took full toll of some weak and ill-directed South African bowling.

But just when New Zealand needed a repeat performance at Wellington, to secure a long-sought first series victory over South Africa, they blew it. South Africa, despite being buffeted by a near-tempest on the first two days at the Basin, found much greater accuracy in their bowling, and applied the pressure well. If there was any advantage to be had in home conditions - and batting in a near-gale should have been a big one - the New Zealanders didn't seem to appreciate it. The thought of ensuring that the South African bowlers spend as much time as possible having to cope with the gusts didn't seem to occur to the batsmen.

The early demise of the New Zealanders thus resulted in their bowlers having to deal with the worst of the wind. And when South Africa backed up their first-innings bowling effort with another controlled display in the second innings, it was always going to be extremely difficult for New Zealand to come back.

Yet New Zealand could still take some positives from the series. Apart from the fact that the three-match series lost only 90 minutes to rain, surely an alltime record for New Zealand, Jacob Oram emerged as a fine allrounder to replace Chris Cairns, when he finally chooses to announce his retirement. While Oram may never bowl as fast as Cairns, he can certainly hit the ball as far. He offers a useful option as a firstor second-change bowler who can use his height - 1.98m, or 6ft 6ins - to good effect on even the least-helpful pitches. His maiden century at Hamilton was achieved in trying circumstances, not the least being that he had been dismissed on 97 in his previous Test innings.

A new and potentially long-serving wicketkeeper to match - and possibly even better - the contribution Adam Parore made to the New Zealand game emerged in the shape of Brendon McCullum. When he settles into his batting role at No. 6, he is going to repay some of the batting headaches that wicketkeepers like Alan Knott, Ian Healy and Rod Marsh have caused New Zealand over the years.

The recall of Chris Martin proved inspired. The pencil-thin Martin of three years earlier had been replaced by a slightly bulkier version, and he was able to bowl for longer spells and with more effect. The fact that he beat Richard Hadlee, Daniel Vettori and Frank Cameron - by three innings - as the fastest New Zealander to reach 50 Test wickets is an indication of what he brought to the side.

Scott Styris continued his rise to a position of pre-eminence in the New Zealand middle order, while there were signs, still to be fully confirmed, that a long-standing frustration with an opening batting partner for Mark Richardson has been rectified with Michael Papps's call-up. He ran into some technical issues later in the series, but he impresses as a player capable of putting in the work and developing.

South Africa's bowling was disappointing in the first two Tests. Shaun Pollock was battling a long-standing shoulder injury, and it wasn't until the sniff of home was in his nostrils that he bowled with the fire and intent that has marked the peaks of his career. Makhaya Ntini always looked likely to cause problems, but lacked the consistent and accurate support that would have made him more potent. An indefatigable performer, he was able to be taken out of the equation too often by New ZEaland's batsmen.

Andre Nel was dropped for the second Test and was replaced by David Terbrugge, who proved no better - and when Nel was recalled for the third Test he made all the difference to the attack. Bowling with more spite and accuracy, he complemented the into-the-wind efforts of the slow left-armer Nicky Boje, who finished with one of the better efforts by a South African spinner overseas with eight wickets in the match. Nel and Boje made all the difference at Wellington, where New Zealand were frustrated by the superior lines achieved by SA's bowlers.

The South African batting arrived with a justifiably fearsome reputation, but too often it disintegrated under pressure, and collapses at crucial stages dented that reputation severely. Neil McKenzie was dropped for the last match, and Graeme Smith had to wait until that last game before he got on top of the bowling, in his matchwinning 125 not out at the Basin.

Herschelle Gibbs suffered lapses of concentration just when he should have been taking complete control, as he had done on his previous tour of New Zealand in 1998-99, when he had scored 211 not out and 120 in successive innings. Instead his indiscipline cost him - and South Africa - dearly.

Jacques Kallis was the target of much New Zealand enterprise and experiment during the series, but he stayed in front long enough to secure two Test centuries, giving him five in successive matches, a record shared only with Don Bradman, who once managed six. But a side injury he picked up when toiling into the wind in the third Test rendered Kallis a passenger, and he was unable to fire up fully when he batted.

Gary Kirsten had a mixed time of it - his 100th Test was marked by twin innings of 1 and a heavy defeat - but he showed the value of experience in an innings he described as one of the most satisfying of his career, when sharing the 171-run stand with Smith that won the last Test, a suitable prize with which to leave the game.

But the Most Improved Player award would undoubtedly go to Jacques Rudolph. Kirsten might be gone now, but Rudolph appeals as a readymade replacement. His concentration, while sometimes inclined to get him bogged down, often provided much-needed solidity, and he proved one of the most difficult batsmen for the New Zealanders to remove. The same could not be said of Mark Boucher, who hardly fired a shot all tour, which further lengthened a vulnerable tail.

South Africa now take a welcome rest, while New Zealand get ready for a tour of England with plenty to think about as they attempt to rebuild their Test reputation. South Africa have learned some lessons, too, and Smith acknowledged that there was plenty to think about in their approach to dealing with conditions similar to those they expect to enounter when they tour Sri Lanka and India later this year.