South Africa's tour of New Zealand started and ended with victories. But in between it was tough going for a team who seldom lived up to their ranking as the second-best in Test and one-day cricket. New Zealand, on the other hand, proved themselves a competent, well-organised side able to shrug off the absence through injury of two leading players: the fast bowler, Shane Bond, and the experienced batsman, Nathan Astle.
The South Africans left for New Zealand just three days after completing Test and one-day series victories over West Indies at home. Coming at the end of a period of almost uninterrupted international cricket stretching back to August 2002, it was perhaps one tour too many. South Africa took the opening one-dayer, but New Zealand won the remaining five - the first time they had taken a series off the South Africans in either form of cricket.
The First Test, played on a poor pitch at Hamilton, was drawn, but a New Zealand series double was distinctly possible after their convincing win at Auckland. This was another first for New Zealand, who had never before defeated South Africa in a home Test. And there were more firsts, too: Stephen Fleming's side totalled 595, Scott Styris hit 170 and Chris Martin grabbed 11 for 180 - all uncharted waters for New Zealand against South Africa.
But at Wellington, where the South African bowlers found conditions more to their liking than the slow surfaces of Hamilton and Auckland, they squared the series. Graeme Smith, the South African captain, made a match-winning unbeaten century in the fourth innings after they had been set 234.
It was a particularly satisfying finish to the tour for Smith. In the early matches, his inexperience was exploited by Fleming, who launched a sledging campaign against him, and later said it had been a deliberate tactic to disconcert his opponent. Experience apart, Fleming held at least two more aces: his all-rounders performed much better than their counterparts, while Martin was the only bowler on either side able to deliver sustained bursts of wicket-taking deliveries.
During the Test series, six South African batsmen averaged over 50 but their last five, so long a guaranteed source of runs, suffered a rare collective failure. By contrast, Chris Cairns and Jacob Oram, who finished the series batting at Nos 7 and 8, were two of New Zealand's stars. The tall, phlegmatic Oram, who bats left-handed and bowls right, gave notice that he could become one of the finest all-rounders in the game. Martin, recalled to the Test side at the age of 29 after an absence of almost two years, was a revelation. A record of 34 wickets at around 35 from 11 Tests did not suggest anything special, but he had prospered in domestic cricket and John Bracewell, the New Zealand coach, believed his ability to swing the ball away from left-handers would be valuable against a side with three in the top five. In any case, the Martin who lined up at Eden Park was a different proposition from the string-bean who made his debut against South Africa on New Zealand's 2000-01 tour, having added 9kg in weight and an extra yard or so of pace.
South Africa made plenty of runs but not always when they needed them most: Smith and Herschelle Gibbs twice shared century opening partnerships, only to see the advantage dissipated. Jacques Rudolph did come of age with two excellent unbeaten innings: 154 in the second innings at Auckland and 93 in the first at Wellington, batting at No. 3. And Jacques Kallis maintained the form that had brought him four hundreds against West Indies, cracking his fifth in successive Tests at Hamilton, while Gary Kirsten made his last series a memorable one. Having revealed before the Tests began that he would retire at the end of the tour, he made a century at Hamilton, failed twice at Auckland (where he became the first South African to play in 100 Tests), but shared a match-clinching stand with Smith in his final innings. New Zealand's batting strength came from No. 4 down, with Styris outstanding. He adapted his style to the demands of each game, in the First Test playing a long, patient innings, and in the Second setting up New Zealand's big total with sparkling strokeplay.
South Africa's attack lacked penetration: Makhaya Ntini and Shaun Pollock both looked stale, and the back-up bowling was largely unimpressive. The exception was Nicky Boje, who bowled his left-arm spin effectively in the victory at Wellington. However, New Zealand's slow left-armer, Daniel Vettori, could manage only four expensive victims in the first innings of the series - and then nothing more.
Throughout the series, pitches were a talking point. The drop-in surfaces used at rugby-cum-cricket grounds such as Auckland's Eden Park proved as much of a mystery to the home team as the tourists, while the condition of the pitch in Hamilton was plain unsatisfactory - so bad the umpires considered calling the game off prematurely.
Match reports for
Northern Districts v South Africans at Hamilton, Feb 11, 2004
4th ODI: New Zealand v South Africa at Dunedin, Feb 24, 2004
5th ODI: New Zealand v South Africa at Auckland, Feb 28, 2004
Central Districts v South Africans at Napier, Mar 5-7, 2004
1st Test: New Zealand v South Africa at Hamilton, Mar 10-14, 2004