New Zealand expect stiffer challenge from South Africa
New Zealand cricket's core has become so keenly introspective that neither the exclusion of AB de Villiers nor the inclusion of Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander to South Africa's Test XI will affect their approach to the upcoming series. Or so they say.
"It doesn't change the way we approach this match. We want to focus on how we play our best cricket," New Zealand captain Kane Williamson said. "Any team that did have AB de Villiers and now doesn't, it's not a great thing for them. He's the best player in the world so for them it's a bit of a loss but at the same time they've got a lot of depth. There's so much talent in this country. Whatever team they pick will be a good team."
In reality, the personnel New Zealand are up against will very much determine their strategy. They will know that the batting line-up - which includes two senior players in Faf du Plessis and JP Duminy who were both dropped last season - can be broken through more easily without de Villiers. They will also know that it will not give way like Zimbabwe's did, when all it took was one short-ball barrage in the first Test and a fair amount of persistence in the second.
In Zimbabwe, New Zealand had to rely on "more creative bowling to try to manufacture wickets on a surface that was very tough to take wickets on," as Williamson put it. In South Africa, there will be some assistance but whether it will come in the form of swing through the humid air or turn from an early-season surface is yet to be seen. That means New Zealand will have to showcase more skill than they did in Zimbabwe but it also means South Africa will have to do the same. "We know South Africa have a very good seam attack and are well balanced in the bowling department," Williamson said.
Among South Africa's six seam-bowling options are swing, seam, and left-arm bowlers who will be far more challenging than the more one-dimensional pack Zimbabwe fielded. New Zealand dealt with mostly medium-pace and part-time bowlers in Bulawayo with respect and only pushed on when they were looking for a second-innings declaration that would give them enough time to win the match. But in so doing, they showed how they plan an attack.
South Africa should heed that. For all New Zealand's downplaying of their higher ranking - Williamson insisted they "don't pay too much attention," to the Test charts - their steady improvement as a unit means they are confident enough not to simply follow the opposition's lead but to set the tone in a Test match. "We know when we play our best cricket, we can beat anyone," Williamson said.
Now that anyone could be South Africa - a team New Zealand have never recorded a series win against - at a place where New Zealand have only won three Tests, one since readmission and none in Durban. If New Zealand are serious about showing how much they have improved as a Test side and how little the reputations of the opposition matter to their own game, this is their chance and Williamson has indicated the want to take it. "I don't think we regard ourselves as favourites. We know that South Africa are always a strong opposition, regardless of the rankings. You are constantly playing in different conditions and different countries all the time so adapting is part of the international game. For us the focus is on playing our cricket"
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent