Sunshine and rain: A story of two southern summers

New Zealand and South Africa played each other at the start and end of their seasons, and plenty went on in between

Tim Southee bowls to South Africa's openers, New Zealand v South Africa, 2nd Test, Wellington, 1st day, March 16, 2017

New Zealand and South Africa fought similar battles in a summer that began and ended with them facing each other  •  Getty Images

The sky was smiling. Lit up a gorgeous shade of golden-blue, it looked down on Kingsmead and declared that an early summer had dawned.
It was only August 2016 but South Africa were hosting New Zealand for some unusually timed Tests in an attempt to elongate the season. Things were going well until a massive storm on the second evening caused damage that rendered the recently relaid outfield unplayable for three days. And so it began.
Two teams on similar journeys were at the start of an 11-Test campaign to redefine themselves. Here's how it went.
The situation
New Zealand started a few weeks before South Africa with a gentle introduction in Zimbabwe, but one they took seriously. Far more challenging tasks awaited - away in South Africa and India before a seven-Test home summer. Their initial goal was to start winning away from home more often.
South Africa were starting from as low a base as they have known. Their defeats to India and England the year before put them at No. 7 in the Test rankings and they had to overcome the embarrassment of falling so far. They started and ended with series against New Zealand, with a trip to Australia and a home series against Sri Lanka in between.
The captains
Kane Williamson was confirmed New Zealand's all-format captain in April and it was seen as nothing more than a man fulfilling his destiny. Despite being only 25, Williamson was thought capable of dealing with the dual responsibility of leading with the bat and leading the side without many problems. And the numbers proved it. In his 13 Tests as captain, Williamson scored 1079 runs at an average of 59.94 - higher than his overall average of 51.16 - with four hundreds. Two of them came in the home series against South Africa, and though they were made in drawn Tests, they were among his classiest knocks, full of composure and confidence against a strong attack.
"The thing the team likes most is the fact that he so selfless," Mike Hesson, New Zealand's coach, said of Williamson. "He doesn't do it for effect, he does it because that's what he cares about. That's his priority - the team. And what drives him is to win games."
Faf du Plessis was only standing in as South Africa's Test captain when the season began but did such a good job that the injured AB de Villiers handed over the responsibility permanently. Du Plessis is a more natural leader than de Villiers, measured in his decision-making and inspirational in his actions. His team-mates threw their support behind him through a ball-tampering scandal in Australia and have responded to almost all of his challenges.
Since taking over, du Plessis has scored 744 runs at 57.23, well above his overall average of 44.92, including two hundreds.
"He walks the walk. He demands a lot from his players but he's willing to go out there and live up to those demands that he places upon the team," South Africa's coach, Russell Domingo, said of du Plessis. "I'm very proud about the way he's gone about his business."
The coaches
Following a successful 2015 World Cup, Hesson was guaranteed he would stay in charge of New Zealand until 2019, so he went into this summer secure about his job, unlike Domingo, who faced the chop after the ODI team was booted from the Caribbean tri-series. At the time, Cricket South Africa had also instituted a review process (later postponed, and then finally completed) and one of the areas under scrutiny was Domingo's position.
Domingo entered the summer with all of that weighing on him, but by October, he could breathe easier. He was given an extension until the end of the England tour, in August this year. Irrespective of the outcome of that series, though, Domingo's job is not assured. Good corporate governance dictates that CSA must advertise for a coach, and though Domingo can reapply, he remains unsure of whether he will do so. South Africa could head to the 2019 World Cup under a new coach.
Absent senior batsmen
After tearing his calf in the Dunedin Test, Ross Taylor joked that his only goal for the next few summers was to make sure he can get through them uninjured, particularly against South Africa. Taylor has missed some part of New Zealand's last three series against them for various reasons. He also underwent eye surgery, which kept him out of the Chappell-Hadlee series, to add to problems with his hamstrings and fingers. He remains hopeful of staying fit for a swansong in 2019.
AB de Villiers started the summer with an elbow problem that was treated conservatively at first, but then required surgery. He was ruled out of action until early 2017, and then he announced a Test hiatus for most of the year. De Villiers wanted to manage his workload so he could make it to the 2019 World Cup and has committed to playing only ODIs and the IPL for the moment. He said he will aim for a Test comeback against India in the home summer this December.
Fragile batting line-ups
Both teams had to settle on new opening combinations this summer and only one of them has had success. New Zealand dumped Martin Guptill for the technically sound Jeet Raval at the start of the home Tests, and Raval has combined well with Tom Latham, who had a great summer despite a slump early on at home against South Africa.
South Africa invested in Stephen Cook at the end of the 2015-16 season and gave him a run until Hamilton, by when his three hundreds in 11 Tests had been overshadowed by his poor away form. Theunis de Bruyn may be given the same chance, but early indications are that South Africa need to find someone else to partner Dean Elgar, who has bedded in as the senior with hundreds in three of the four series played.
The teams also have questions in the middle order. Neil Broom did not have the best start at No. 4, but Henry Nicholls finally came good at No. 5 with a hundred in Wellington and will hope to build on that. For South Africa, JP Duminy continues to misfire, and with Hashim Amla also struggling, their seniors are in a slump. Temba Bavuma made up for it, though. Despite no hundreds this summer, he scored runs when South Africa needed them most - in Perth, Hobart and Wellington - and has been compared to Ashwell Prince for his ability to be the bridge over troubled waters.
Wicked keepers
In years to come, there will be calls for both BJ Watling and Quinton de Kock to move up the order, but they are both kingpins at No. 7. Watling's solidity adds depth to New Zealand's line-up, while de Kock has the ability to change Tests single-handedly and is savvy in batting with the tail.
Injured fast bowlers
This summer New Zealand went through what South Africa did in the last one, as their two premier pacemen took turns being injured. Tim Southee's ankle ruled him out of the India Tests and his hamstring forced him out of Hamilton. Trent Boult picked up a groin strain and missed the last two Tests of this series.
That Neil Wagner had played only one Test without either of them since debut tells you how much New Zealand have come to rely on Southee and Boult. Unlike South Africa, who shuffled through various options without success, New Zealand's second-tier stepped up. Matt Henry took his opportunities against both Pakistan and South Africa, and so did Colin de Grandhomme, whose medium pace puts him in the Vernon Philander mould. Wagner was his usual relentless self and gave New Zealand a lot to work with.
South Africa had a more settled attack following Philander's comeback, mostly because of the control he provides. Dale Steyn came back too, but was soon injured again and remains out until June at least, but Morne Morkel's return was the most inspiring. After 14 months nursing a career-threatening back injury, Morkel returned against New Zealand with pace and precision to lead South Africa's attack. Add Kagiso Rabada and Duanne Olivier to the mix, along with Chris Morris and Wayne Parnell, and South Africa seem well stocked.
The spinner
New Zealand's opted for a young spinner in Mitchell Santner at the start of the season, and then included a more senior player in Mark Craig, before he was injured in India. Their most interesting inclusion was Jeetan Patel, who was called back from a successful county stint, for the South Africa series. Patel may not be a long-term solution but New Zealand see him as a mentor.
"He is helping us develop a few other spinners at the same time," Hesson said. "He is the most consistent spinner we've got and a really nice filler for us now. He gets the best out of the other bowlers and has sped up their learning."
South Africa fared better in this department with left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj, described as the "find of the summer" by du Plessis. Maharaj was the top wicket-taker in New Zealand and also performed admirably in Australia. Although not a big turner of the ball, his control is his asset and he benefitted from pressure created by the quicks. Dane Piedt started the summer against New Zealand and was then dropped; he was recalled at the end, and though he did not play, he remains in contention.
The end
The sky was sullen. Hidden behind stubborn clouds, it could not look down on Seddon Park. It is March 2017. South Africa and New Zealand have met again in an intriguing contest, but the rain forecast for all five days fell on the final morning. And so it ended.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent