Cricket: South Africa reject underdog tag as weakened squad try to avoid maiden test series loss to Blackcaps

Even with a heavily depleted squad named to face the Blackcaps in two tests, South Africa are refusing to adopt an 'underdog' mentality.

Due to a clash with their franchise Twenty20 league at home in South Africa, the Proteas side that takes the field against New Zealand will be vastly different to one Kiwi fans might be used to.

Of the 15 players to travel, only seven have played test cricket before, as South Africa's first-string players are contractually bound to put T20 first.  

The move isn't the first by South Africa, who put their place at last year's World Cup in serious risk by pulling out of an ODI series against Australia to kickstart their own T20 league.

South Africa celebrate in their series draw against India.
South Africa celebrate in their series draw against India. Photo credit: Getty Images

With World Test Championship points on the line, the Proteas will be rank outsiders for anything but a 2-0 defeat, but coach Shukri Conrad isn't comfortable entering the series as outsiders.  

"I don't think any South African likes to be regarded as an underdog," he said. "We're certainly not assuming that underdog tag.

"I don't think any battle between New Zealand and South Africa - both on the cricket and rugby field - we certainly don't ever see ourselves as underdogs.

"We're just proud to represent South Africa. I speak for every single one of the guys in that room now, they're itching to get going against a top side."

South Africa's squad is another worrying sign for test cricket and one that could be counted as a nail in the coffin of the longest format.

A weakened West Indies side are currently 1-0 down in their two-test series against Australia, after a host of their players opted to play T20 leagues in South Africa and the UAE.

All over the world, players from nations outside the game's 'big three' of India, Australia and England must choose between maximising their earnings through T20 cricket or playing for their country, where pay is considerably less.

For most of the last two years, Blackcap Trent Boult has been a T20 gun for hire and won't play in this series to compete in the UAE.

While this series will be tainted by the shadow of the shortest format, Conrad says even ground must be reached by all parties.

Tim Southee celebrates against South Africa.
Tim Southee celebrates against South Africa. Photo credit: Photosport

"Everyone talks of test cricket being in danger. I think powers higher up have to make a few decisions around countries other than, shall we call it, the 'big three'.

"Test cricket is still very important to every nation. I speak for every South African player, everyone still sees it as the pinnacle of cricket.

"Everyone wants to play test cricket, but we have to co-exist with all the leagues around the world.

"If there's parity in many instances, the lure of the dollar and pound is not as strong. The cricket world is ever-changing and you've got to roll with the punches.  

"As long as we can produce strong international teams, strong test cricket sides and good contests, test cricket is still something everyone wants to be part of.

"I don't think test cricket is in too much danger, it's just a case of making it attractive to everyone."

Cricket South Africa's decision to send a weakened side puts more than just their World Test Championship campaign at risk - it will see the team potentially lose one of their proudest sporting records.

Since the two sides first met in 1932, the Blackcaps have never beaten South Africa in a test series. All up, New Zealand have beaten the Proteas just five times, with 26 defeats and 16 draws.

Should the Blackcaps lift the trophy for the first time, South Africa's T20 priority would have cost them more than just World Test Championship points, but with their backs to the wall, as they were when they fought back from 0-1 down against the Blackcaps in 2022, they won't go down lightly.  

"There's always pressure in international sport," Conrad continued. "International cricket is always about pressure.

"A couple of weeks ago, we had India in South Africa, who had never beaten us in South Africa. We obviously had to defend that final frontier, we got away with drawing that series.

"The fact that New Zealand have never beaten us in a series looms large. It's a proud feat that we won't easily surrender."