South Africa successfully tackle the unexpected

Quinton de Kock turns one away to the leg side AFP

The language of modern sport lies in buzzwords and the one this week was adaptation. Neither South Africa, nor New Zealand, nor anyone else for that matter, knew what to expect from SuperSport Park in winter, but it turned out that was not what the hosts required adjusting to. Rather, they had to contend with two other quandaries: the loss of a certain starter in Dean Elgar and the shaky form of someone who has flirted with being dropped in JP Duminy. They dealt with both sans major drama to finish day one in control.

Remember that South Africa are a team that prefers to play to plan. The most common criticism leveled at them is that they are unable to adjust to spontaneous challenges. On the eve of the Test, after the fielding drills were complete, Elgar was walking off the park when he wobbled on the boundary rope and sustained a grade three tear to his ankle. After all the concerns about player safety on the Kingsmead outfield, it turned out a pristine surface could be just as dangerous and contribute even more to derailing team strategy.

Although his career is only 26 Tests old, Elgar is the senior opening partner and one of the most experienced members of the line-up. More importantly, South Africa did not have a reserve opener in their ranks which would have caused some consternation when choosing a replacement.

They had three options: Stiaan van Zyl, who had opened in eights Test before and failed, Temba Bavuma, who opened in one and showed promise, and Quinton de Kock, who had never opened in Tests and had not done the job in South African domestic cricket since February 2014. The South Africa we know would have picked experience over an experiment and gone with either van Zyl or Bavuma. The South Africa we saw opted for de Kock.

In numbers terms, the decision made sense because while van Zyl averaged 15.60 as an opener, and Bavuma scored 22 and 34 when he was given the chance, de Kock has opened 16 times in first-class cricket and averages 37.25 in the position. Perhaps the only reason he has not been seriously debated as an opener before is because his role with the gloves militates against it. Imagine if he had to keep for two days and then immediately go out to bat, or bat through the innings and then keep. That theory may not be tested in this match and it is likely the debate will continue after de Kock provided 82 reasons he could be considered for a longer-term role.

De Kock survived a tense first hour in which New Zealand's seamers probed his defences and Tim Southee almost broke through. The ball of the morning moved off the seam and snuck past the offstump and - as was the case for New Zealand for most of the day - was close but not close enough.

The tug-of-war between de Kock's attempts to assert himself and New Zealand's to justify their captain's decision to bowl first provided the most engaging cricket on New Zealand's African safari so far. De Kock creamed Doug Bracewell through the covers; later in the over, Bracewell drew a top edge and, in the next over, drew him forward and beat the bat. De Kock whipped Bracewell off the pads and, off the next ball, Bracewell found an inside edge which BJ Watling could not hold on to. With even the outside edges off de Kock's bat seemingly timed well enough to reach the boundary, it became clear he was winning the battle.

For South Africa, to have someone with de Kock's lively temperament at the other end along the more conservative Stephen Cook did wonders for the opening stand. Cook did not need to rush into run-scoring, which he may not have been able to do anyway because he rarely looked entirely comfortable at the crease. Instead, he built slowly.

Through grit, grind and some good fortune, the pair put on the first century-stand for a South Africa top two since Graeme Smith and Alviro Petersen in December 2013, and that set South Africa up. Even when things did not come easily - and the end of day score may suggest they did - they had the security of that stand to build on.

New Zealand will feel hard done by after what can be considered a decent day's work scuppered by luck playing hide and seek with them. When it wasn't denying Bracewell, who found several edges none of which went to hand, it was duping the umpires. Twice, Ian Gould turned down appeals for lbw - against Stephen Cook off Neil Wagner and against Duminy off Trent Boult- and twice, Kane Williamson did not review. In both instances, a review would have overturned the not-out decision. On the two occasions Gould raised his finger, to dismiss Hashim Amla off Boult and Duminy off Bracewell, the decisions were overturned on review.

Duminy was the biggest beneficiary. Promoted to No. 4 for the second Test in succession, he has also had to adjust but mostly to the pressure over his place. The last time Duminy scored fifty was more than two years ago, against Zimbabwe in August 2014 - 10 completed innings ago. That could have become 11 when he edged the first ball he faced, but, fortunately for him, it went wide of second slip, to the boundary.

During Duminy's dry spell, there would be flickers of form that were snubbed out by poor shot selection and he threatened the same today. After rolling his wrists to send a short ball over long leg and leaning into drives, he pulled out a premeditated lap scoop which, if he made contact with, may have ended his career. He wore it instead and batted on. Duminy still has a long way to go to convince the critics there is significant life left in him as a Test cricketer but he had to start somewhere.

So did South Africa. For all their concerns about a series becoming a one-off shootout and the uncertainty over the surface, they could not have had a better day in their bid to begin their climb back up the rankings.