Ken Rutherford was the last New Zealand captain to win in South Africa – the 137-run victory at the Wanderers in November 1994 – and he acknowledged that the visitors will be facing an uphill struggle.
“On paper, New Zealand are clearly up against it, it’s a bit like Scotland playing the All Blacks. It will be a huge challenge against the world’s number one team. South Africa have half-a-dozen world-class players in Steyn, Morkel, Smith, De Villiers, Kallis and Amla, while the current New Zealand team maybe just lacks a bit of star quality,” Rutherford said.
But despite their failure to win very often against South Africa, New Zealand have always proven tough opposition and a major reason for that is the quality of leadership they have had through the years. Rutherford was an astute captain from 1992 to 1995 and was followed by the cerebral Stephen Fleming and another great thinker in Dan Vettori. They might not have had the same depth of talent as most other international teams, but the Kiwis played smart cricket and made the most of the skills at their disposal.
“New Zealand only played their first Test in 1930 so the history of New Zealand cricket is really less than a hundred years old and in that time they’ve only had half-a-dozen truly great players – Glenn Turner, Richard Hadlee, Martin Crowe, Bert Sutcliffe, John Reid and Dan Vettori – and to a lesser extent, Stephen Fleming and Shane Bond. Having even just one real star makes a difference to a team and New Zealand teams without those have had to find other ways of competing,” Rutherford said.
The 47-year-old is now based in Johannesburg and is involved in the horse racing and sports betting industry and the Wanderers victory he presided over 18 years ago is a prime example of good captaincy making the difference, even though Rutherford modestly suggests New Zealand triumphed because they won the toss.
“I remember that match well and the key was winning the toss, to be honest. We had every intention of bowling first because it was a grey, overcast Joburg morning. But the pitch was dry and had cracks on it on day one, and as Hansie Cronje tossed, out of the corner of my eye I saw the sun peeping through the clouds and decided ‘bugger this, we’re going to bat’.
“When I got back to the changeroom, wicketkeeper Adam Parore had the pads on and the bowlers were getting ready. I had to tell the openers, Bryan Young and Darrin Murray, to hurry up and put the pads on because we were batting! There was an audible silence in the changeroom … “ Rutherford recalled.
Ross Taylor is the current owner of the New Zealand captaincy and he will need to show similar quick-thinking on his feet if the visitors are to beat South Africa at home.
The 28-year-old Taylor is averaging over 40 since taking over the captaincy in November 2011, but he will need more runs from the rest of his batsmen.
“New Zealand’s first-innings average recently has only been about 320 and, these days, if you’re not scoring 400 in your first innings, you’re just about out the game. New Zealand haven’t batted well enough recently, especially in the first innings, and they need more runs, that’s the key. Their fortunes over here will revolve around how they bat,” Rutherford said.
The former Transvaal and Gauteng captain singles out Martin Guptill and Kane Williamson as two young batsmen he expects more from.
“I see a lot of talent and ability in Guptill and Williamson, they are the future of New Zealand batting, but they need to perform at the highest level.
“Williamson has only averaged 27 in his last 10 Tests, while Guptill and James Franklin look like a million dollars in first-class cricket but haven’t quite been up to it in Tests. They need to make the step up from being very good first-class players, but obviously it’s a mental or confidence issue.”
Rutherford also believes the likes of Williamson and Guptill should not be playing in T20 cricket, because of the damage it does to their techniques.
“It’s a travesty that they’re playing in the T20 side, but maybe they can’t afford not to. In that case, it’s all about NZ Cricket managing their resources better.”
Rutherford, who once scored 317 in a day for the New Zealand tourists against the Brian Close XI at Scarborough in 1986, believes the Black Caps have much to look forward to when it comes to their bowling attack.
“Tim Southee is exciting, while I like the look of Trent Boult, the left-armer who swings the ball and has a bit of pace. He’s only going to get better. Doug Bracewell is also a useful bowler and then there’s Vettori, so that’s four decent bowlers,” Rutherford said.
With South Africa electing to play the two Tests in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, New Zealand will also be spared the pace-friendly conditions on the Highveld. On their previous tour to South Africa, they were beaten by 358 runs in Johannesburg and by an innings and 59 runs at Centurion.
“It’s quite a positive for New Zealand to be playing in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. At both venues, they’d like to win the toss and bat and I’d like to think our batsman will come into our own in those conditions. Winning the toss there will give us an advantage and I hope our batsmen battle through,” Rutherford said.
The slower pitches at Newlands and St George’s Park mean left-arm spinner Vettori will be a key figure for the Black Caps.
“Dan is a good example of a player you can build a team around. Perhaps the one criticism of him is that he doesn’t bowl sides out on the fourth or fifth day to turn a Test or win the game. In 15 years of Test cricket, how often has he done it? But that’s a bit unfair because teams understand that he’s the key and treat him with great caution.
“There’s no downplaying Dan’s value to the team and clearly New Zealand will want him fit and bowling well for the series here,” Rutherford said.
According to Rutherford, the hosts’ greatest strength is the ability of their star players to change the course of a Test in the space of a session.
“South Africa have individuals who can take the game away from you. But New Zealand haven’t played good Test cricket for a while because they haven’t yet recognised that in one hour, someone can take the whole match away from you, they’re less able to spot those opportunities.
“But compared to South Africa, New Zealand don’t play a lot of Test cricket, maybe five or six games a year compared to a dozen. It takes a while to understand the game at that level, the ebbs and flows and being able to grasp the crucial moments.”