In September, it was assumed Jeetan Patel would never play for New Zealand again. Now, at 36 years old, he is an integral part of the side.

He's likely to continue getting used this series and in the team's next major assignment, the Champions Trophy in June.

Patel's guile on the fourth day of the first test in Dunedin, including 28 straight overs from the northern end, kept New Zealand in the contest.

South Africa have a 191-run lead with four wickets to spare heading into the final day.

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Given the onus placed on bringing two spinners into the match, Patel was New Zealand's sole presence before lunch, bowling three overs.

Captain Kane Williamson probably used his services first because, as an off spinner, he would generally take the ball away from the three left-handers in South Africa's top seven.

Left arm orthodox Mitchell Santner bowled his first over (his sixth of the innings) at 3.37pm.

Patel took two for 72 from 36 overs, including his fourth consecutive dismissal of Quinton de Kock in an international innings, and getting Dean Elgar to miscue a lofted drive which found Williamson at deep mid-off.

Patel returned for the one-off test series in India, having devoted himself to English county Warwickshire over the past few seasons. He has since played Bangladesh, Australia and South Africa.

"I didn't plan to play for New Zealand again. But when the stars align, it's beautiful. You get an opportunity to make up for lost time. Playing 11 months of the year is taxing but it's meant my bowling and my smarts are a lot better."

Patel's dedication was shown as he hobbled down the pavilion stairs after the media conference. He's putting his body on the line at the bowling crease and beyond. That was evidenced when Jean-Paul Duminy worked a ball towards the square leg boundary early in the day.

Patel raced from deep mid-wicket to dive and save two runs. Sixteen runs in the first innings as nightwatchman indicated he's removed the yips which affected his batting in South Africa during January 2013.

Patel's prominent use suggest he might be picked as the country's frontline spinner for next week's second test in Wellington, presuming only one is used. The key question is how much weight Santner's batting holds in the selection debate.

"I'd love to play a test match at the Basin," Patel said.

"I have played a lot there so I tend to know what's going on.

"Maybe I get picked to get Quinton out," he said.