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Nicholls passes the test - for team and self

Henry Nicholls: 'I've had great support from the group, and they kept reinforcing the need to play my natural game' Getty Images

New Zealand seemed spent before the first hour was up. Asked to bat against a South African attack that had been salivating over the surface since they first saw it three days ago - when it was the same colour as the outfield - they were done in by their own deception. And how.

The truth about the Basin Reserve strip is that it is not nearly as vicious as it appears but, with no wind to throw his bowlers off-kilter and warmer air promising a hint of swing, Faf du Plessis decided to test New Zealand's depth straightaway. It was not long before even Kane Williamson could see the bottom. That's why he reviewed his own dismissal even though everyone who saw it happen knew he was out.

Maybe it was a good thing ball tracking had been distracted by a rouge piece of mud at the time. It saved Williamson from having to see the three reds that would certainly have come up. It did not save Neil Broom from having to make his debut a little sooner than he may have liked. Or from falling into a perfect trap set-up by Kagiso Rabada (short ball, short ball, full) and completed by a one-handed stunner from Quinton de Kock. With South Africa sizzling, Henry Nicholls, had to make his way to the middle.

Put yourself in his shoes for a moment. Since making his debut little more than a year ago, as a specialist batsmen who does not offer another skill, he had not scored a hundred. The closest he came in his first eight innings was 24 runs away and then he was dropped in India. He did not get any closer to the landmark in his next eight innings, and there were calls for his head throughout that time. The selectors stuck with him, though, and he almost repaid them in the series before this one, when he scored 98 against Bangladesh. But, again, he hadn't looked convincing in Dunedin and the noises about needing middle-order solidity were getting louder.

Now put yourself in his shoes at that moment when he strode to the crease at Basin Reserve. Rabada had not conceded a run and had two wickets to his name. One of them was the captain. The other was the debutant, so he had covered the full spectrum. The less experienced of the two openers was his partner and after him there was only the allrounders and the tail. If New Zealand were going to survive even just the first session, it would have to be because of him.

On a pressure scale of 1 to 10, this would have ranked at least a 15, even if the man himself insists he had spent the last year blotting that out. "It's always the case as a batter - there's always going to be people knocking down the door and there will always be speculation about your spot," Nicholls said. "I've had great support from the group, and they kept reinforcing the need to play my natural game."

"Nicholls played like a seasoned No. 5, not someone starting out. He gave New Zealand something to work with."

Nicholls is instinctively a positive player but, at international level, aggression upfront only works for very few people. For most, the first 20 balls are an examination. At 21 for 3, they are more like an algebra exam, where formulae are important, rather than a poetry one, where creativity is.

The first ball was a full toss down the leg side, Nicholls didn't follow it and it brushed the pad on its way through. He passed the first test. The next one was also full, from Vernon Philander, and angled away from him. Nicholls didn't chase it. He passed the second test. The eighth one was short from Morne Morkel and aimed at the body. Nicholls showed respect and wore it on the hip. He passed the third test.

Then the tests started becoming a little more manageable, and passing them with better grades became a real possibility. Nicholls had calculated what he needed to do.

He began to understand the extent of bounce Morkel would extract and either stood up tall in defence or got out of the way. He didn't always get it right. He was beaten once. He survived. He threw his bat at width twice. He found the boundary both times. He scored at an equally quick rate against Rabada, whose challenge was exactly the opposite of Morkel's. In Rabada, Nicholls had to adjust to playing the fuller ball and he pushed it into the "V" down the ground with authority. Impressively, Nicholls played spin with as much surety and worked Keshav Maharaj around while scoring at a fair clip. "I was trying to be positive and really decisive," he said. "So I kept looking to score."

With Nicholls on 98, the South African media manager asked one of her New Zealand counterparts how he was holding up. That wasn't a casual joke between colleagues; Willy Nicholls is Henry's big brother, and works as New Zealand's social media and content producer. He nodded amidst giggles. Two balls later, as Nicholls hooked Rabada over square leg to bring up three figures, Willy hastily left the area with a camera. He may well have shot the celebratory pictures with a massive sigh of relief. His younger brother was feeling exactly that. "It was probably a bit of relief - nice to get three figures after letting one go against Bangladesh," Nicholls said.

Probably even nicer to have shown the kind of composure that made it difficult to believe this was the same man considered ripe for a drop just two days ago. Nicer still to have batted with the seniority New Zealand were nervous they would be without after Ross Taylor's calf-injury forced him out of the game. Nicholls played like a seasoned No. 5, not someone starting out. He gave New Zealand something to work with.

In the end, Nicholls' dismissal sparked a collapse at the hands of JP Duminy, who helped clean up the last five wickets for 51 runs. In hindsight, Nicholls should have acted more responsibly than shimmying down the crease and allowing a player who had retreated back into the territory of part-time bowler to dismiss him. But that would be harsh on a man who was batting to save his own career as much as he was batting to save his team from collapse. He did his bit and New Zealand will go into the first hour of the second day recharged.