Cricket's rising stars run gauntlet

Bittersweet: New Zealand’s Brendon McCullum celebrates after AB de Villiers is bowled for 29 during the T20 international match in Auckland on February 22 2012. (Brendon O’Hagan/Reuters)

Bittersweet: New Zealand’s Brendon McCullum celebrates after AB de Villiers is bowled for 29 during the T20 international match in Auckland on February 22 2012. (Brendon O’Hagan/Reuters)

AB de Villiers and Brendon McCullum laid their sporting souls bare before the epic World Cup semifinal at Eden Park in Auckland two years ago when they both said they would play the game as though it was a matter of life and death – but that they would have a beer together afterwards, win or lose.

All they wanted was a clean, fair contest to decide the winner and, infamously, the visitors believed they were denied that when their preferred starting XI, based on form and fitness, was vetoed in favour of a preferable look.

By the time McCullum was ready to open the batting and start the run chase, he knew exactly what had transpired in the opposition camp and vowed to make them pay despite chasing a steep target of 298 in just 43 overs: “They think they can dick around with the team in a World Cup semifinal?” he muttered. “They’ll regret it.”

The Black Caps captain smashed 59 from just 26 balls in an extraordinary assault against Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander and put his team so far ahead of the required rate that they remained in charge of the innings right up to those dramatic closing moments when both teams’ nerves were frayed. But South African-born Grant Elliott held his best for last to hit the winning six off Steyn in the final over.

No wonder De Villiers referred to “unfinished business” on arrival in the New Zealand capital where the tour starts with a one-off T20 International at Eden Park on Friday, before moving an hour’s drive south for the first of five one-day internationals.
Three Tests round off the tour in Dunedin, Wellington and back in Hamilton.

The respect that was so evident two years ago remains intact. New Zealand’s all-time low came four years ago when they were dismissed for 45 in a Test match at Newlands, a result that McCullum and recently appointed coach Mike Hesson used as a springboard for a complete overhaul of preparation and approach.

The Proteas’ post-isolation low point was to come two years later in New Zealand and, although it took a year for the players to truly confront what they refer to as “the politics”, they finally did so in August last year when they held a “culture camp” at which every one of their doubts, suspicions and resentments was aired. The “politicians” might label them white, black and African, but that is not how they saw each other.

It was powerful stuff, as was McCullum’s plea to his beleaguered players to remember the days of their youth when they played cricket because they loved it and it was fun.

New Zealand’s results in the past three years have outstripped those of any other period in their history and South Africa’s have been nothing short of astonishing since August. They are ranked first and third in the world and are both improving.

Once again, they will prepare with precision and professionalism, contest every moment and leave no questions about themselves unanswered. When stumps are drawn, they will, once again, visit each other’s changing rooms to share their stories of battle with a beer. Part old world, part new world, it’s what modern sport should be.


Key match-ups show little divides the two teams

Captains

Kane Williamson: Understated, softly spoken and unremarkable with his hillbilly beard and slight frame. Don’t be fooled. He is a modern-day great at number three and is showing jaw-dropping moments of genius as a captain. (9)

AB de Villiers (ODIs) and Faf du Plessis (Tests): De Villiers is still finding his way back into the job after his injury hiatus but showed his inclination to attack and being unpredictable against Sri Lanka. Du Plessis is the most natural leader in the squad and has a tactical instinct and ability to read the game that is close to eerie. (8)

  Opening batsmen

Tom Latham: Early wickets seem inevitable under New Zealand conditions so opening partnerships of substance can turn matches. The 24-year-old left-hander has what it takes, with six centuries and an average of 40 after 29 Tests. (7)

Dean Elgar: Like Latham, a nuggety left-hander with a remarkably similar Test record – six hundreds from 32 Tests and an average of 39 but with five years more experience. (7)

  Middle order

Ross Taylor: The 33-year-old has seen it all – although with the recent aid of corrective eye surgery. More than 6 000 runs from 80 Tests at an average of 47, his 16 centuries is a New Zealand record. (8)

Hashim Amla: Amla was taken to hospital for surgery after a blow to the groin on the last tour to New Zealand but, painful memories aside, he should flourish this time. He has 24 Test centuries and an average of over 51, a recent slump included. The great man is back. (9)

  Strike bowlers

Trent Boult: The 27-year-old left-arm swing bowler blows hot and cold. Recent form suggests he is blowing hot and a real threat in both Tests and ODIs. (8.5)

Kagiso Rabada: At just 21, Rabada already has 63 wickets at a cost of only 21.7 runs each from just 14 Tests. Only New Zealand’s notoriously slower pitches might reduce his effectiveness. But the ball still travels 145km/h. (8.5)

  Swing and Seam

Tim Southee: Like most genuine swing bowlers, Southee can be devastating in the right conditions. His 201 wickets in 56 Tests suggests he’s also doing something right in unhelpful conditions. (7.5)

Vernon Philander: Try as the groundsmen might to negate his threat with “dead” pitches, Philander thrived on the last tour and there’s no reason he won’t again. Overcast skies and a few blades of green grass are all he needs. (9)

  Spinning all-rounders

Mitchell Santner and Keshav Maharaj: Both left-armers and genuine batsmen, their ability to bowl maidens and score valuable lower-order runs may be crucial to the outcome of the Test series in conditions unlikely to offer them much encouragement.


The fixtures

T20 International
Feb 17: Auckland

  ODI itinerary:

Feb 19: Hamilton
Feb 22: Christchurch
Feb 25: Wellington
Mar 1: Hamilton
Mar 4: Auckland

  Test itinerary:

Mar 8-12: Dunedin
Mar 16-20: Wellington
Mar 25-29: Hamilton

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