New Zealand's brains trust may have spent Tuesday night sleepless as they mulled over which bowler to bench, in order to accommodate two spinners in their XI at the University Oval. In the end, they left out vice-captain Tim Southee, who has not been dropped in five years since India 2012, in a move that blind-sided everyone including the opposition.
"I was surprised because he is their trump card. He and Boult have been phenomenal for New Zealand, in Test and one-day cricket so I was surprised to see him not playing," Dean Elgar, South Africa's centurion, said. "I know to play two spinners you have to sacrifice someone. But I was surprised because he bowls with a lot of control and brings the right-arm aspect to the bowling department."
Mike Hesson explained that once New Zealand had decided on their spin duo, they had to choose two of their "three very good seamers" to make up the rest of the attack. With Trent Boult the mainstay, the choice was between Southee and homeboy Neil Wagner, and Wagner won out.
"We didn't think there was a lot in the wicket and we needed one of the two seamers to be able to create things when there's not a lot on offer, and Neil has done that consistently over the last few years. So that was relatively straightforward," Hesson said. "It's certainly something Kane, myself and senior players spent some time tossing over and I think no matter which way we went it would have been a difficult decision. Whoever missed out would have felt a bit miffed."
A sullen Southee was spotted throughout the first day but he wasn't the only one who would have felt hard done by. Colin de Grandhomme, who has impressed in this home summer, made way for Jimmy Neesham, who is regarded as a better batsman, for tactical reasons. "If we thought the wicket was going to seam then we would have played Colin de Grandhomme. It hasn't seamed this year and it didn't seam today," Hesson said.
Hesson conceded that the real test of whether there is any movement on offer will come when South Africa take the field and Vernon Philander has the ball in hand.
Elgar is confident that even if there isn't much for Philander to exploit, South Africa's attack is good enough to make inroads despite having picked only one specialist spinner in Keshav Maharaj.
"I'm going to say our bowlers will perform brilliantly," Elgar said. "We are fortunate to have similar wickets, like at St George's Park, where we play good cricket and the wicket is very similar with regards to the pace. Our bowlers seem to have a lot of success there."
Even though Elgar found his most free-scoring period when the New Zealand quicks were using the older ball post-lunch, he believes the South Africa's speedsters could pose real problems for New Zealand, especially with the new ball. "Having a little bit of extra pace on the ball seems to be key, which is why I find it a bit odd that Neesham didn't bowl a bit more because he does bowl a quicker, heavier ball. We've got Morne and KG who can crank it up to 145-plus, which could work in our favour in this kind of wicket," Elgar said.
Before South Africa get to that, they will want to ensure they give their bowlers enough to work with. After losing four wickets on a slow first day and with two batsmen well set, they could already be rethinking their estimation of what they would like to end up with. "We were looking at about 250-280 at about tea time but now being in a good position after not losing a wicket in the last session we can readjust," Elgar said. "I think 350 is maybe a 450 on that wicket just because of the slowness of the wicket."
The pace of the match is a concern for other reasons too. The scoring rate on day one eked over 2.5 to the over, and with rain around on the weekend, there is already suggestion there may not be enough time for anything other than a draw. Hesson, however, thinks it's too early to look further than the next day or two. "Any time you play against South Africa, it's always a result pitch," Hesson said. "Dunedin has put on a cracking day today and I wouldn't expect it to be much different the next couple of days. As for the weekend, when you live on the coast, predicting the weather two days out can be a bit of a guessing game."