Lessons from Zimbabwe
Ultimately the New Zealand home summer will be judged on results against South Africa, arguably the world's best team across all formats currently. In a generation's time the Zimbabwe tour will be confined to reading for the players' ancestors, and perhaps the odd dedicated historian. For the short term: half a dozen promising observations from the last month.
Martin Guptill must translate his skills to handling South African pace. With 91 from 54 balls on Saturday in the first T20 against Zimbabwe, Guptill posted his fifth consecutive half-century across all international formats. The last New Zealand batsman to have such a convincing run of fifties was Roger Twose in 2000, in five ODIs against Zimbabwe and Pakistan.
Guptill's composure will have eased angst in the dressing room after New Zealand slumped to 15 for 2 after 2.5 overs chasing 160 to win. No one in the New Zealand team plays better shots straight. Guptill needs to apply those skills against South Africa's quality fast bowling. He could not get past 16 in four Test innings against Australia in December, so it is time to keep cranking the bowling machine to 145kph in practice and prepare to endure a peppering.
The limited-overs top three is cemented, but Jacob Oram can float. Coach John Wright is understood to endorse the theory of playing your best batsman at No. 3 in shorter forms. It means they're out to the crease early but protected (to a limited degree) from the perils of the new ball. That has seen Brendon McCullum move into first drop, with Rob Nicol and Martin Guptill inserted. Oram remains a possible floater to three if circumstances demand quick runs. In T20 internationals Oram's strike rate is higher than McCullum's (138 v 132) and just a shade behind in one-dayers (87 v 89).
However, it seems strange McCullum chooses not to open, a role he has long coveted in all forms of the game. Psychologically it could give New Zealand an edge against South Africa. Intensity levels will go up, and it may be better not to expose Nicol when McCullum has the experience to unsettle dangerous opposition from the first ball. If McCullum was to go early, Nicol still has the technical ability to stay at the crease and compile.
Tom Latham has shown form and class. Against Zimbabwe, the 19-year-old proved the "if you're good enough, you're old enough" theory through his convincing strokes batting in the middle order. If his first two scoring shots in international cricket were an indication - a cover drive followed by a square drive - he has a promising future. Father and former Black Cap Rod couldn't help but offer a discreet fist pump sitting on the University Oval embankment when his boy got off the mark.
Latham made valuable contributions, 24 from 33 balls in Dunedin, 48 from 28 balls in Whangarei, plus a seven not out from three balls in Napier. He played well off both feet and pushed singles with relative ease, especially in his 48. Latham has done enough to suggest he will feature against South Africa.
The test pace quartet, led by Chris Martin, needs to be persisted with. The New Zealand bowlers delivered in tight channels to leave Zimbabwe incapable of releasing the pressure in the solitary Test. They were backed by a fielding unit that took 13 catches behind the wicket and dropped just one on the way to becoming the third side in Test history to dismiss another team twice (for 51 and 143) in a day. Regular revolving spells again proved a successful modus operandi for New Zealand, as it had in the second Test to beat Australia in Hobart. Man of the Match Martin, 37, took career-best figures of six wickets for 26 runs in the second innings against Zimbabwe, showing the next generation of Doug Bracewell, Tim Southee and Trent Boult how to apply themselves in Tests.
Martin's love for bowling at South Africans bodes well. They represent the highest proportion of his 218 Test wickets (44 wickets or 20%). He also has career-best match figures against them, with 11 for 180 in Auckland in 2004, in New Zealand's sole win over South Africa at home.
The Watling hunch. BJ Watling's rise from provincial top-order batsman to regular Test gloveman and No. 7 has been remarkable, especially given it occurred in the space of a few weeks. Watling proved capable in the Zimbabwe Test, in which he scored his maiden century in the format, gave away just four byes, and took four catches in the second innings. He was also endorsed by stand-in skipper and former Test keeper McCullum. For him, as for every other New Zealand cricketer, the true test this summer is how he goes against South Africa, but he has made an emphatic start. Zimbabwe were weak but Watling set high standards regardless.
He will be Northern Districts' wicketkeeper in Plunket Shield matches until the start of the South African Test series. In doing so Watling gets the chance to regularly crouch to deliveries from Northern Districts' Test-only bowlers Daniel Vettori and Boult.
Tarun Nethula and Roneel Hira are prospects to be used further in 2012. Nethula debuted nervously in Whangarei (no wicket for 55 off ten overs) but rebounded in Napier, taking 2 for 41. He generated enough top spin to deceive Elton Chigumbura and thump him the pads lbw - just reward for spells where he was comfortable floating the ball up in temptation. New Zealand produces few specialist leg spinners - Brooke Walker was the last in 2002 - but Nethula's form suggested he could be of use in the West Indies, India and Sri Lanka, as back-up to Vettori, later this year.
Likewise Hira pitched the ball up in his first T20. His middle-stump strike as Shingi Masakadza swung to leg was deserved compensation for a brave effort on a small ground for straight hits. Hira finished with 1 for 22 from four overs. His left-arm orthodox spin shapes as a useful weapon for September's World T20 in Sri Lanka.
Andrew Alderson is cricket writer at New Zealand's Herald on Sunday