Watch out! The Kiwis are coming
It's hard to keep tabs on all the international cricket going on at the moment. There's the razzmatazz of Pakistan-India, the enthralling Warne v Murali duel in Sri Lanka, and all the hoop-la of 47 all out in Jamaica as England bid for their first Test series win in the West Indies for 36 years.
But arguably the biggest challenge to the established world order is happening, quietly but confidently, down in New Zealand. At Hamilton, after South Africa scored 459 on a deteriorating pitch that eventually had a hole in it, New Zealand replied with 509. Then at Auckland, in a match that finished early yesterday, they piled up 595 and strolled home to win by nine wickets.
This, remember, is against the team rated, just about unanimously, as the second-best in the world. Ah yes, they seem to have a mental block against the Aussies (who doesn't?), but South Africa usually flex their muscles and bully everyone else.
This turnaround has also happened on New Zealand pitches - these days, the sort of seam-friendly tracks that Daniel Vettori pursed his lips about in this month's Wisden Cricketer: "It's only been in the past couple of years that our pitches have become exceptionally green. There's not much encouragement for a spinner." The sort of pitches, in short, that should suit South Africa perfectly, with their strong seam attack and no quality spinners.
Just think who's out there: Shaun Pollock, arguably the canniest fast bowler in the world today, with Allan Donald's South African Test-wicket record now stashed in his kitbag. Makhaya Ntini, the leading Test wicket-taker of 2003. David Terbrugge, the nagging Gauteng seamer whose prolonged absences from the national team are hard to explain. And Jacques Kallis, who is as quick as anyone when he turns his mind to stopping hundreds rather than scoring them for fun.
That was the attack flogged all around Eden Park by Scott Styris, Chris Cairns and Jacob Oram. Cairns's abilities have been known for some time, but too often Venus and Mars have not been in the right part of the sky for him. But when they are, he is murder to bowl to: ask Phil Tufnell about The Oval 1999, when Cairns took to him in a match-turning 80. And ask that impressive South African bowling line-up from the other day: Pollock 4 for 113, Ntini 3 for 110, Terbrugge 0 for 93. Kallis did get his customary century - but it was with ball, rather than bat: 1 for 108. Cairns howitzered 158 off 171 balls, with 18 fours and seven soaring sixes.
It was New Zealand's support cast, though, that raised eyebrows. Cairns piled on 225 for the seventh wicket with Oram, who supplied a stroke-filled 90 of his own, to follow his maiden Test century at Hamilton. Before this series Oram, 25, was thought of, outside New Zealand at least, as a bits-and-pieces allrounder. But the bits are big - he's 6ft 7ins tall - and he's piecing together an impressive career now.
Which leaves Styris, who was born in Brisbane 28 years ago. He pottered around for the best part of a decade with Northern Districts as a bowler who could bat a bit. He finally made New Zealand's one-day side at the end of 1999, and didn't set the world alight until, in Trinidad in June 2002, he suddenly biffed 63 not out, and followed that up with 6 for 25.
Buoyed by that, Styris was included in the side for the second Test, in Grenada. He strode in at No. 8, and biffed 107, the first Test century on the new Queen's Park ground in St George's, and added 69 not out in the second innings to give him the heady batting average of 176. Still the outside world didn't take much notice, perhaps because they hadn't quite got used to West Indies playing Tests in the middle of the English season.
However, Styris wasn't a flash in the pan. He has developed into a solid presence in the New Zealand middle order, a sort of right-handed Mark Greatbatch, and he has been on top form in this series. At Hamilton, now up at No. 4, he grafted for more than four hours for 74. And at Auckland, entering at a dicey 12 for 2, he dropped anchor for more than five-and-a-quarter hours, to set up Cairns and Oram for their later fireworks. Styris's massive 170 was his third hundred, in only his 11th Test, and propelled his average back into the mid-40s.
It all means that New Zealand have quietly assembled a very useful side. Stephen Fleming is now Test cricket's senior captain, and arguably its silkiest left-hander. On a surface that suits him, Vettori is the game's leading left-arm spinner. Shane Bond, when fit, is up there with the Shoaibs and Samis for sheer speed. Craig McMillan is showing signs of returning to form. Mark Richardson is a reassuring John Wrightish sight at the top of the order, and the big and brawny Daryl Tuffey has a happy knack of muscling out important wickets.
Mix in Cairns, Oram and Styris, and you've got a formidable team. They've known this for a while in New Zealand, but the rest of the world has been slow on the uptake. Winning in England in '99? Hmm, down to muddled England selection - what do you expect if you have a tail of Mullally, Tufnell and Giddins? Drawing 0-0 in Australia in 2001? Well, a bit lucky with the weather (true up to a point, but four New Zealanders did make centuries on the Aussies' banker ground of Perth). Hammering South Africa, almost by an innings? Er, you may have a point ...
Since the English season took on its current look in 2000, the first part of the international summer (think Zimbabwe - twice - and a rusty Pakistan) has been seen as the hors d'ouevres before the fast food of the one-day triangular and the main course of the second Test series. But this coming summer, New Zealand might just give the English cricket fan indigestion by the middle of June.
Steven Lynch is editor of Wisden Cricinfo.