Even the most partisan New Zealand follower, buoyed by victory over India earlier in the season, knew that South Africa would pose a far greater threat. So it proved. The South Africans walked off with both the Test and one-day series. The international player of the season award was a car, and Daryll Cullinan drove off in it.
But New Zealand were not overwhelmed. It was, at first glance, perplexing that a team already struggling to make ends meet and without Chris Cairns, Stephen Fleming and Craig McMillan due to injury, should have lost the Tests only 1-0. But two implacable pitches - plus the weather at Christchurch - caused South Africa more trouble than the opposition. When they did have a reasonable surface at Wellington, the weather minded its manners, and South Africa won comfortably.
Their players were still recovering from the 11-hour time difference when they lost the opening one-day international. They levelled the series in Christchurch, but lost again in Auckland, looking with dismay at the scruffy-looking strip on which they would play the First Test a week later. But by the time the game began, it had been doped into insensibility, providing one of the most sterile Tests the long-suffering (and dwindling) New Zealand audience for traditional cricket had ever endured. it will be remembered for Cullinan's 275, but rather more for Geoff Allott's 101-minute nought. No one could be surprised that more than twice as many saw New Zealand win in one day as draw in five.
In the final fortnight, the South Africans were able to show something of their true form, and the crowds responded. The Third Test was far more compelling, and they swept through the last two completed one-day internationals. This helped wipe away memories of the selection controversy that dogged the early part of the tour.
After the first one-day international, Herschelle Gibbs, one of the three non-white members of the squad, with Paul Adams and Victor Mpitsang, was dropped for the next two. The coach Bob Woolmer and the captain Hansie Cronje, apparently believing that the quota system for players of colour applied only to Tests, picked all-white teams - and ran into a storm of criticism at home. Before the First Test, Gibbs said that he wanted to play only if he were picked on merit. His credentials were unproven beforehand - two fifties in 11 Tests - but there was no doubt, come the end of the series. Accusations of tokenism vanished as he scored 365 in four innings, while Adams took ten wickets, more than anyone else except Shaun Pollock.
Jacques Kallis made further progress as a determined batsman and, with Gibbs established as Kirsten's opening partner, South Africa's batting line-up looked armour-plated. Elworthy coped well as the injured Allan Donald's replacement in the Third Test, when he formed a useful partnership with Pollock, who claimed 13 wickets during the series at under 17 apiece. South Africa had few extravagant flourishes to their play, but a strong team looked even stronger by the time they left: a tribute to Cronje's leadership on the field and Woolmer's organisation off it. Playing conditions were not always to their liking, but they came through with an enhanced reputation as a compact and effective unit equally adept at Test and one-day cricket.
For New Zealand, there were a couple of positive features to a largely disappointing series. Their one-day form - Allott was the most successful bowler in either side, with 14 wickets - suggested they had the fight and ability to prosper in the World Cup when conditions were likely to favour their gentle-paced attack. In the Tests, Nathan Astle and Matt Horne did well, though no one went on to a hundred; South Africa hit six, including two double-hundreds. But the bowlers, battling against pitch, weather and quality batsmen, were most exposed: Vettori, with seven, was alone in taking more than two wickets.
Match reports for
6th ODI: New Zealand v South Africa at Wellington, Mar 31, 1999