The top four batsmen – Stephen Cook (56), Quinton de Kock (82), Hashim Amla (58) and JP Duminy (67*) all posted half-centuries, the first time South Africa have done this in a Test since December 2010 against India at the same ground. That was the memorable match in which Jacques Kallis finally scored his maiden Test double-century (201*) and, with Graeme Smith (62), Alviro Petersen (77), Amla (140) and AB de Villiers (129) also all contributing, the Proteas scored 620 for four declared and won by an innings.
Saturday’s performance was the most solid top-order display since then and it happened after South Africa had been sent in to bat on a pitch which kept the bowlers interested all day long.
The platform was laid up front by Cook and De Kock, who eagerly requested to open the batting after regular opener Dean Elgar was ruled out by injury, as they added 133 for the first wicket, batting through to 45 minutes after lunch.
The New Zealand bowlers had their say in the second session as De Kock was caught hooking off Neil Wagner and Cook was snapped up low in the gully by Kane Williamson off Doug Bracewell, but Amla was unperturbed and went to a stylish half-century before he was caught behind off a superb Wagner delivery an hour after tea.
Duminy and Faf du Plessis, two men who were playing for their places, then made it through to stumps to ensure South Africa ended the day strongly and did not waste any of the good work done up front.
Duminy should have been given out lbw a couple of times and then when he was sent on his way, he reviewed the decision and Bracewell’s delivery was found to have pitched outside leg stump. Reprieved on 44, the left-hander will want to press on on Sunday morning to ensure his place should be safe when De Villiers returns to action.
While Duminy, still one of the most elegant batsmen around, made a heartwarming return to form, Du Plessis still seemed to be battling some demons and had to dig deep during his 85-minute stay, scoring 13 not out off 58 balls.
The foundation for a successful day for the home side was laid up front as Cook and De Kock gave South Africa their third-best start ever on the opening day of a home Test, putting on 133 for the first wicket before the Black Caps made the breakthrough 45 minutes after the lunch break.
The short ball once again worked for left-arm seamer Wagner as he enticed De Kock into playing the hook shot, the ball sailing straight to fine leg, to dismiss the wicketkeeper/batsman for a confident 82.
It was a particularly impressive innings by De Kock because he was standing in at the top of the order following the twisted ankle suffered by Elgar on the eve of the match.
Cook scored an obdurate 56, showing great tenacity as he struggled for lengthy periods, but his plucky innings was ended when seamer Bracewell nipped the ball away on a helpful surface, the batsman edging a drive low to gully.
Duminy, under pressure to keep his place in the side, had set himself nicely by the tea interval with 14 not out, while Amla was looking good on 24 not out.
Amla now averages 85.78 at SuperSport Park and is the second-highest run-scorer in Tests at Centurion, with 1201, going past De Villiers on 1157 at 60.89. Kallis is the leading run-scorer at the ground with 1267 in 16 Tests at an average of 70.38.
It was Wagner, the emigrant from Pretoria, who eventually eradicated the Amla threat, delivering a beauty that was coming in on the angle, but then held its line to find the edge of the bat, wicketkeeper BJ Watling, another South African-born player, taking the catch.
Openers Cook and De Kock showed plenty of heart and application as they batted through a tricky morning session and took the hosts to 100 without loss at lunch, only the third time South Africa’s openers have posted three figures in the first session on the first day of a home Test. The previous occasions were when Eddie Barlow and Trevor Goddard reached 118 without loss against England at the Wanderers in 1965 and when Graeme Smith and Herschelle Gibbs scored the same number of runs against Pakistan at Newlands in 2003.
De Kock was looking particularly assured stroking 15 fours in a quality innings, being particularly impressive off his legs and square of the wicket on the off-side.
Cook battled through some tough times as he played second fiddle to his gifted left-handed partner.
There was a trace of green grass in the pitch when New Zealand won the toss and elected to bowl first in cool conditions, but South Africa probably would have batted first anyway, given the Centurion pitch’s history of becoming more up-and-down as the game progresses.
Cook survived an early lbw review by Trent Boult thanks to an inside-edge, but he scratched about at the start while De Kock settled quickly. A beautifully-controlled square-drive for four by the wicketkeeper/batsman off Bracewell would see the 50 raised off the first ball after the drinks break.
De Kock was given a life on 42 when he inside-edged a drive at Bracewell but wicketkeeper Watling couldn’t hang on to a tough chance as he changed direction and dived to his right.
De Kock reached his 50 off just 73 balls, scoring all around the park for his third Test half-century.
Although the South African openers needed some luck to survive, the Black Caps bowlers did err too often in terms of line, in between bowling some superb deliveries. The late movement of Bracewell provided the most problems for the batsmen, but he still went for 65 runs in 17.2 overs.
Wagner finished with the best figures of two for 51 in 22 overs.
The withdrawal of regular opening batsman Elgar necessitated the only change to the South African team, with Stiaan van Zyl replacing the left-hander. The Cobras batsman will bat in the middle-order, however, where he is obviously more comfortable.
New Zealand are making use of the same XI that did duty in Durban.