Black Caps the envy of hosts as series win seems possible

South African spirits are low; New Zealand are younger, buoyant and well-primed to win a test series in the republic for the first time.

These are among the sentiments floating around the first test starting in Durban tonight.

Consider New Zealand, at No5, are two places above their hosts in the rankings. And remember South Africa started the year at No1.

There is a feeling the tourists have a youthful outlook, full of vim and playing entertaining, assertive cricket under new skipper Kane Williamson. South Africa are lacking the old verve and forcefulness they once had under Graeme Smith, who was in charge on New Zealand's last, ill-fated two-test tour there in 2013.

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"They are a happy team," South Africa's coach Russell Domingo said admiringly, after New Zealand's 2-0 series win in Zimbabwe en route to Durban.

South Africa are going into the series with the cloud of a Government-enforced quota system hanging over them. Although Domingo, who hadn't been told the specifics five days ago, has said the best players will continue to be chosen, the make-up of South Africa's final XI tonight will tell its own story.

The bottom line is that whatever they may feel, all Domingo and his captain, Faf du Plessis -- in for the injured AB de Villiers -- have to say is that it is their best team, complete with six or seven black or coloured players, on merit and that's the end of the argument.

How South Africa must wish they had New Zealand's freedom to express themselves without checks and balances to go through. There are issues which can play with the mind.

For example, JP Duminy was dropped earlier this year against England. Is he back in the XI because of a double century he scored for his Cape Cobras team or because of his colour? And vice-versa in other cases.

Six of South Africa's key players are over 30 -- Hashim Amla, opener Stephen Cook, du Plessis, Duminy and seam kings Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander.

These are changing times for South Africa. New Zealand, by contrast, are a settled group. They'll tinker with the odd selection -- does Durban demand a second spinner or fourth seamer, either Doug Bracewell or Matt Henry?

New Zealand have never won a test in three attempts at the Kingsmead ground, most recently in 1994, when they surrendered a 1-0 series lead to lose 2-1. But South Africa have lost five of their last six tests in Durban. Perhaps this is the ideal time for a confident New Zealand to strike, if they're good enough.

"I don't think South Africa are on the way down because they are still a quality side," senior seamer Tim Southee said.

He's right, and yet there are enough rumblings behind the scenes within the South African set-up, not all their own doing, to suggest New Zealand could start at least even in the opening test.

South Africa v NZ

First test, Durban, starts 8 tonight

South Africa (from): Faf du Plessis (c), Hashim Amla, Stephen Cook, Temba Bavuma, Dean Elgar, JP Duminy, Quinton de Kock, Vernon Philander, Chris Morris, Wayne Parnell, Stiaan van Zyl, Dane Piedt, Dale Steyn, Kyle Abbott, Kagiso Rabada.

New Zealand (from): Kane Williamson (c), Martin Guptill, Tom Latham, Jeet Raval, Ross Taylor, Henry Nicholls, BJ Watling, Mitchell Santner, Ish Sodhi, Neil Wagner, Mark Craig, Tim Southee, Trent Boult, Doug Bracewell, Matt Henry.