Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent
Test cricket is the format that catches New Zealand at their weakest, according to coach John Wright. While they have been lauded for their craftiness in the limited-overs forms of the game, the complex strategies of a five-day battle is still an area in which they are developing.
"Test match cricket is at a particular tempo that's quite different from the Twenty20 and the 50-over stuff. We need to adjust to that and understand when to attack and when to defend, with both bat and ball," Wright said.
Mindset is often underlined as the difference between good teams and great ones, and Wright spoke of two of the greatest when he looked for an example of getting the balance right. "South Africa and Australia have a pretty good understanding of how to take positions," he said. "They [South Africa] will come back harder, they've said so and we believe them. But we took some confidence out of that last match and if we could sneak one here it would be a great achievement."
Words like sneak and scrap have become associated with New Zealand cricket over the years, and they are ones New Zealand hope to replace with words like consistency. Almost every New Zealand player who has addressed the media on this tour has said that a few marquee wins, such as the one they achieved in Hobart last November, are not enough. Instead, they have to able to stack up such performances before they can be considered as being part of the top-tier.
To begin achieving that, Wright said, New Zealand have to be able to challenge teams like South Africa more often. "I think it's really important how we compete and how we're seen to compete. Winning or losing is part of the game but a lot of the battle is in how you fight."
According to Alviro Petersen, the South Africa opener, New Zealand have competed in phases so far, rather than as a sustained effort. "They are a workmanlike team but for them to do well they have to combine well as a unit," Petersen said. "They've done it in patches, they haven't done it throughout the game."
One such example was Chris Martin's four-ball burst on the first day of the Dunedin Test, in which he took three wickets. Soon after, the New Zealand attack appeared to relax and let some of the South Africa middle and lower-order batsmen, such as Vernon Philander, score runs that should have been prevented.
Wright was also concerned about the way New Zealand let South Africa off the hook in the second innings. After having them at effectively 12 for 2, New Zealand allowed Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis to get big hundreds. "We had a situation where they were two down with two big players at the wicket and they got through that hour," Wright said. "If we can get them into that area again, where they're under pressure and we can take some wickets, who knows?"
Creation and maintenance of pressure is one of Wright's key goals for the series because it is the only way he can see New Zealand challenging a South African side that have no apparent weaknesses. "I look at South Africa and I see a very good cricket team, but I've always felt and we've always felt that very good cricket teams can be beaten," he said. "There is an opportunity to put them under pressure and then, once you get them to that situation, see how they respond because that's where you win and lose games."
South Africa have become better at handling pressure than they have been in the past. They were able to recover from a first day that they ended at 191 for 7 in Dunedin, and were in a commanding position by the fourth day of the match. "We started slowly off the blocks and when you start slow you are a bit concerned, but we found our way nicely," Petersen said. "The first day of the series wasn't ideal for us but we got on and we assessed the conditions and we played beautifully after that."
With the threat of South Africa improving as the series goes on, Wright said New Zealand are under no illusions of how difficult the task ahead of them is. "We know we've got to play good cricket to beat them and that won't change; and we know that we're probably going to be a better Test team further down the road. We've still got things to learn, we've still got youngsters there. Hopefully the senior players are going to set the example and we'll be a little bit stronger, but that doesn't mean to say we can't beat South Africa in our own backyard if we do things correctly in the next Test, or the one after that."
Edited by Dustin Silgardo