CAPE TOWN: New Zealand have done absolutely nothing to suggest they can upset South Africa in the first Test of the two-match series beginning at Newlands on Wednesday — and that may be their greatest weapon.
Not for generations have expectations been lower before a test series. The hosts hold a commanding five-point lead at the top of the world Rankings while New Zealand languish in eighth place, ahead only of Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.
The last time the Black Caps were in South Africa, in November 2007, they were humiliated in both Test matches, failing to reach 200 in four innings and losing by margins of 358 runs and an innings and 59 runs.
South Africa fast bowler Dale Steyn began his ascent to the top of the world bowling rankings by taking 20 wickets at a little over 10 runs apiece.
Steyn is still top of the world rankings but now he has two team-mates for company in the top 10, Vernon Philander in second place and Morne Morkel in sixth. New Zealand’s 38-year-old seamer Chris Martin is the leading Kiwi in 17th place.
A look at the batting rankings is bleaker for the touring side. Not only do South Africa have another three men (Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers) ranked in the top 10 — with Graeme Smith at number 13 — but the tourists have just one, and he is not on the tour.
The saga of Ross Taylor’s embarrassing sacking as captain is still haunting the management team and further holes in the first-choice XI have been created by injuries to all-rounders Daniel Vettori and Tim Southee.
But filled they will be, and by men who will take to the crease with bat or ball in the knowledge that even the optimism of their closest friends and family will be based more on hope than expectation.
The same cannot be said of the home side. Such is the weight of expectation on them that one suspects they cannot satisfy it. Certainly, victory alone will not suffice. South Africa fans have not seen their test team on home soil in 2012 and they are expecting to see them now in all their glory.
Coach Gary Kirsten, understandably, has tried to play down those expectations.
“The success of our team in 2012 was based on the fact that we remained humble in our play, we never took any situation or any team for granted,” Kirsten told reporters.
“We made sure that our preparation was spot on and that, when we got into test match time, we set up solid foundations to give ourselves the best chance of success. We will treat this series no differently.”
The Proteas need to win both matches simply to maintain their lead in the Test championship. A drawn series would see them lose ground to second-placed England while an unlikely defeat would drop them to second.