Wellington: As New Zealand's former captain Daniel Vettori put it, the third and final Test will be "pretty influential" on the team's summer. Having already lost the Twenty20 and ODI series, New Zealand have one chance to try and level the Test series, but considering how strong the opposition has been it wont be easy.
Should New Zealand rally and pull of an improbable victory - as they did in Australia last year - it will bring to end a season in which they have showed plenty of sparkle. After squaring a Test series in Australia, they returned home and whitewashed Zimbabwe, only to stumble against South Africa. It was always known that South Africa would be their toughest opponents, and Ross Taylor's side will need to pull out all the stops in attempting to down the best Test team around.
While Vettori believes his players have been almost on par with South Africa during the past two Tests, the difference in batting has been stark. During the first match in Dunedin there were three South African centurions, while none for New Zealand. In the second Test in Hamilton AB de Villiers top-scored with 83, with Kane Williamson’s 77 being the second best on either side.
South Africa lead the three-Test series after winning the second match by nine wickets.
The ability of the South African batsmen to dig deep has been the difference. Williamson's 77 spanned 193 balls, but before that in the first innings Brendon McCullum's 61 ate up 133 balls. The second most number of deliveries faces by a New Zealand batsman was 93 by Taylor in the first innings, but his was the second of five wickets to spectacularly fall without an addition of a run to the total. For South Africa - de Villiers aside – Alviro Petersen (74 balls), Hashim Amla (51) and Mark Boucher (74) all managed to stick around.
South Africa have achieved almost all they came to New Zealand to do. They outplayed New Zealand in the limited-overs leg of the tour and cannot lose the Test series after a nine-wicket win in Hamilton. Graeme Smith will surely fancy the team's chances of winning 2-0, and hope to channel the series success into South Africa’s more important fixtures against England and Australia later in the year.
Their bowling has been outstanding, as has their slip and outfield catching. They have looked a far hungrier unit, and even when in trouble have found players to stand up and be counted. For a team desperate to become No. 1 in Tests – and they will have that shot when they take on England in July – wrapping up this last Test will be of utmost importance.
Smith said on the eve of the match that there won't be any changes to South Africa's playing XI.
Personnel-wise, New Zealand have dropped the opener Rob Nicol after scores of 6, 19, 2 and 1 in his two Tests and recalled Daniel Flyn, who in his 16 Tests has opened the innings just once. Flynn has not played a Test match for more than two years but has earned a spot in the line-up due to Nicol's poor run and a strong Plunket Shield season. Dean Brownlie has also returned to the squad after recovering from a broken finger and will bat at No. 6. With the extra batsman, New Zealand will drop a bowler and rely on a three-pronged pace attack in Chris Martin, Mark Gillespie and Doug Bracewell.
With a stronger northerly wind set to blow across the Basin Reserve on days one and two, the bowlers on both sides will be tested more than during the first two Tests. The venue's curator has promised an even contest, but on the basis of South Africa's domination – they bowled New Zealand out for under 200 in both innings on a flat Hamilton pitch – there is no denying that Smith's team is the superior side.
New Zealand: 1 Daniel Flynn, 2 Martin Guptill, 3 Brendon McCullum, 4 Ross Taylor (capt), 5 Kane Williamson, 6 Dean Brownlie, 7 Daniel Vettori, 8 Kruger van Wyk (wk), 9 Doug Bracewell, 10 Mark Gillespie, 11 Chris Martin
South Africa: 1 Graeme Smith, 2 Alviro Petersen, 3 Hashim Amla, 4 Jacques Kallis 5 AB de Villiers, 6 Jacques Rudolph, 7 Mark Boucher (wk), 8 Vernon Philander, 9 Dale Steyn, 10 Morne Morkel, 11 Imran Tahir