<
>

Can South Africa soften Eden Park memories?

play
'NZ are similar fielding team like us' - Du Plessis (2:09)

South Africa T20 captain Faf du Plessis talks ahead of their one-off T20 and limited-overs series against New Zealand (2:09)

"We've got some unfinished business in New Zealand," AB de Villiers said before boarding the flight to Auckland.

"It will be mixed feelings returning to Eden Park, we'll always carry the World Cup semi-final with us," Faf du Plessis followed with when South Africa arrived.

Nobody who was present, or watching, could forget what happened the last time they were in town.

With five runs needed off two balls, Grant Elliott swung Dale Steyn high over wide long-on to send New Zealand into the 2015 World Cup final and bring to an end a match of dizzying twists and turns. The final a few days later in Melbourne does not hold such fond memories, but that night at Eden Park was the zenith of a tournament that captured the imagination of the New Zealand public like cricket had rarely done before.

It was a significant match for the vanquished, too, and not only because it added another chapter to the story of South Africa's near-misses. One of the more significant moments in terms of what has followed came before the match started: the decision to replace Kyle Abbott, who had taken nine wickets in four matches, with Vernon Philander who had been under an injury cloud.

It took South Africa a while to admit what was widely assumed at the time - that it was not a selection based purely on cricket merit - and it played no small part in setting off the chain of events which led to Abbott being the highest profile of the recent Kolpak exodus.

Then there is de Villiers. His team was within touching distance of a World Cup final, and who knows what may have happened if they had gone all the way. Australia could well have been too good for them as well, but you never know. Now de Villiers has said that 2019, and one final crack at the World Cup, is his target - so much so that he has shelved Test cricket for much of this year, and there must still be some doubt about whether we will actually see him in whites again.

His decision does not solely rest on one match in South Africa's history of tournament heartache, but if they had been able to hold aloft the trophy, would his priorities be different? That isn't to say his priorities now are wrong, but you can bet that if 50-over cricket had given way instead of Tests, the debate surrounding it would not have been half as strong.

And so, with that background, it's to Eden Park that South Africa return to begin their tour of New Zealand - weather permitting, and the forecast isn't promising - having enjoyed a mid-2016 upturn in fortunes which has continued into this year despite the distraction of Kolpaks. After worrying times not too long ago, there is some impressive depth emerging in South African cricket.

The two main protagonists of that final moment in March 2015 will not be part of their sides for any part of the tour. Elliott retired from ODIs in April 2016, with a story to last a lifetime, and has not played a T20I since last year's World T20. Steyn is currently undergoing another lengthy injury rehabilitation with, like de Villiers, the 2019 World Cup a distant target.

But there could be 11 players remaining on Friday from that night depending on the final XIs. If it wasn't for a small ankle impingement that needs rest, Philander may well have been back this time as well.

New Zealand's semi-final triumph went against the trend of the bilateral contests between these two sides. Only three times have they come out on top against South Africa in any format: a one-off T20 in 2005 and two one-day series wins - 5-1 in 2004 and 2-1 in 2013. The latter was an important little footnote in the Brendon McCullum era as it came shortly after the humiliation of being bowled out before lunch on the opening day of the Newlands Test, which led to the now well-document battle-cry of how McCullum would lead the team.

South Africa, with 11 successive one-day international wins under their belt and the No.1 ranking, have every right to start this tour with confidence (albeit their most recent reversal was in the T20 series against Sri Lanka, but with a significantly weakened side). However, New Zealand have so far scripted the perfect home summer: when they've got on the park, they have come back with 12 wins from 12 matches against Pakistan, Bangladesh and Australia, although they have had to work hard to earn some of those victories.

There was, perhaps not unexpectedly, a period of taking stock over the last year since McCullum strode off the international stage amid a blaze of shots against Australia. The fixture list gave Kane Williamson a tough baptism with away trips to South Africa and India, so while anyone jumping to conclusions would have been unfair, this was always going to be an important season for Williamson's New Zealand. So far, so good (apart from the brief trip across the Tasman).

However, for all the positive results they have stacked up, it is these next six weeks, against a formidable South Africa team, that will define how the season is remembered.

The starting point of a single T20 does not have a great deal of context - the sort of international cricket that the current revamp of the schedule is trying to eradicate - but New Zealand have their 100% summer to maintain. As for South Africa, they would like to leave Eden Park with happier memories this time. Even if that day nearly two years ago will always be with them.