Black Caps cross fingers for big guns return after 'unacceptable' collapse prompts serious rethink for South Africa must win
A two-man cavalry comprising Ross Taylor and Trent Boult will join the Black Caps in Hamilton, while a struggling Tom Latham should get a reprieve for the must-win South Africa decider.
Words like "terrible" and "unacceptable" were among the first uttered by New Zealand batting coach Craig McMillan as he picked over the wreckage of their eight-wicket defeat in three days in Wellington.
Most galling was their Saturday collapse for 171, six wickets to spinner Keshav Maharaj and none to unplayable deliveries, rather very poor shot selection on a pace bowler's pitch.
To make things worse for coach Mike Hesson, who wasn't even at the Basin Reserve due to illness, he was still throwing up the next morning and couldn't fulfil his usual post-test interviews. Saturday's TV viewing would hardly have improved his health.
Hesson and co-selector Gavin Larsen now have to pick a side for Saturday's third cricket test at 1-0 down, and will likely feature minor tweaks rather than wholesale changes.
McMillan confirmed Taylor (low grade torn calf) and Boult (hip/groin) would undergo fitness tests after they left significant gaps in Wellington. Taylor's absence at No 4 was strongly felt, as debutant Neil Broom had a torrid time and captain Kane Williamson scored 2 and 1, the leanest two innings total of his glittering 60-test career.
Boult bowled on the Basin Reserve and "came through quite well", McMillan said, after Boult expressed confidence he'd be fit for Hamilton.
Taylor looks less likely but will be desperate to play on a ground he averages 49 in tests, scored a century against Pakistan in November and, alongside Williamson, is one short of Martin Crowe's record of 17 centuries.
"He needs to be fit, first and foremost, we're not going to play him if he's not fit. I haven't spoken to him [Taylor] for a couple of days but knowing Ross I'm sure he is [keen] to play in his hometown, and he's done well there in recent times."
Should Boult and Taylor be passed fit, then an extra spinner for Colin de Grandhomme may be the only other change.
McMillan confirmed Hesson's earlier comment that the third test will be played on the Waikari clay side of the Seddon Park block, which turned appreciably for the fourth ODI and was predicted as a "dustbowl" by South Africa's skipper Faf du Plessis.
"We've played a lot in Hamilton where it hasn't turned. Obviously the one-day games it did. Until we get out there and talk to the groundsman, not sure what we'll be in for," McMillan said.
Dropped in Wellington, Mitchell Santner will be a strong chance to return and partner Jeetan Patel, where his batting will be a plus at No 8. It wouldn't surprise to see Ish Sodhi in the mix as an attacking option, too, after a seven-wicket Plunket Shield bag in Hamilton this month.
If Boult returns and they play two spinners then Neil Wagner could be vulnerable if they think the ball will swing, which would see Boult and Tim Southee reunited on their home track.
In the top-six Jimmy Neesham could be most under threat after a poor test in Wellington but he remains the top allrounder in the injured Corey Anderson's absence. De Grandhomme's batting was found wanting again, too.
"One of their [selectors'] key traits has been loyalty and that's served us well. I'm sure there'll be plenty of discussions... There are a lot of domestic players going really well around the country but I firmly believe within our group we have the best players."
Latham is in a slump which extended to eight international innings of 10 or under. Amid a searing Morne Morkel spell he drove ambitiously at one he should have left on Saturday, but with a test average of 39 and six centuries will get another chance.
"We need to get him back to making those good decisions and everything else will flow from there."
Williamson would not be moved down the order and remained the "best No 3 in the world", McMillan said.
New Zealand couldn't capitalise on having South Africa 94-6 on Friday, and seizing their rare chances against quality opponents remained their achilles heel.
"Yesterday was a terrible day and to lose within three days was unacceptable. The group is hurting and disappointed but it's something we have to acknowledge," McMillan said.
"That [debrief] will take place today and tomorrow, a review and some self-reflection amongst the whole group. It's important to remember, while yesterday wasn't good, it's only just over a week ago that we performed pretty well in that first test. We need to get back to that standard and bounce back quickly for Hamilton."