New Zealand captain Kane Williamson and coach Mike Hesson made arguably the boldest selection call of their tenure by dropping Tim Southee from the starting XI for the opening day of the first test against South Africa in Dunedin.

Southee has been an integral part of the Black Caps' success in recent years and has been man-of-the-match in two of his last three tests - against Pakistan in Hamilton, and Bangladesh in Christchurch.

He has 24 wickets at 22.79 in the four home victories this summer. It was the first time the 28-year-old right-armer had missed selection on the basis of skill rather than injury or illness since New Zealand played India at Hyderabad in August 2012.

However, there was logic in the decision if New Zealand were to accommodate Jeetan Patel as a second spinner to complement Mitchell Santner. New Zealand have not used two specialists in a home test for seven years.

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The pair have no wickets for 92 from a combined 42 overs so far, but were picked more for the tandem damage they might inflict in the second innings.

New Zealand looked to benefit from turn shown on the block in two November Plunket Shield matches. Both games produced draws where seam and spin shared the spoils. In the second match, between Otago and Wellington, Patel took six wickets for 55 before rain intervened.

His entry into the attack from the sixth over on the first day added a surreal element. The on-field decisions felt like they belonged on the sub-continent, yet it was a crisp 15-degree autumn morning.

Wagner was expected to do more work off the wicket than Southee would in the air on a pitch expected to dry and break up.

The sacrifice restricted New Zealand's chances of swinging the new ball.

"We've got three good seamers and once you decide to go with two spinners it was something Kane, myself and senior players spent time mulling over," coach Mike Hesson said.

"No matter which way we went it would have been a difficult decision. Whoever missed out would probably feel miffed.

"If we didn't think there was a lot in the wicket we needed one of the two seamers to try and create things. Neil has done that consistently over the last few years."

South African century-maker Dean Elgar admitted he was surprised.

"He [Southee] is your [New Zealand's] trump card. I know that to play two spinners you've got to sacrifice your all-rounder or other seamer, but he bowls with control and brings a right-arm aspect."

Batting all-rounder Jimmy Neesham got the nod over bowling all-rounder Colin de Grandhomme. Neesham also offers more pace than de Grandhomme which saw Faf du Plessis misjudge a pull to get caught at deep square leg.

"If we thought the wicket was going to seam then Colin would have played more of a part," Hesson said. "It hasn't seamed this year, and it didn't seam today."

Elgar agreed: "I found it odd they didn't bowl Neesham more because he bowls quicker and with a heavier ball."