The two-Test series marks South Africa’s return to the format after a seven-month hiatus as it seeks to start the long climb back up the ICC Test rankings.
Steyn and Philander last shared the new ball in the first Test against India in Mohali last November, when South Africa was leading the ICC Test rankings. Two successive series losses – 3-0 away to India and 2-1 at home to England- saw South Africa slide to the seventh spot, two places behind New Zealand.
Steyn strained his groin in the first innings of the Mohali match and did not bowl in the second innings. Since then he has played only one Test, against England in Durban last December, when he suffered a shoulder injury which ruled him out of the second innings. Philander had an ankle injury before the second Test in India and missed South Africa’s last seven Tests.
At Kingsmead, Kagiso Rabada, who took 13 wickets in South Africa’s last Test outing against England, is set to complete a three-man pace attack with Steyn and Philander. With Morne Morkel ruled out of the two-match series because of a back injury, South Africa’s selectors have been spared having to decide which one of four fine fast bowlers to omit.
Pitch conditions for the bowlers, however, are an unknown factor. South Africa is hosting at Test series for the first time in August, at least two months earlier than usual, and the pitches in Durban, and Centurion for the second Test, could be slower than normal.
While South Africa has slipped backwards, New Zealand has surged quite rapidly in the recent past. Four seasons ago, New Zealand was bowled out for 45 on the first day of its previous series in South Africa, and eventually lost both Tests by an innings.
Brendon McCullum, the former captain, identified the losses as a turning point, with the players getting together and appraising honestly their attitude to cricket. The resultant positive attitude and improved performances has made New Zealand one of the most popular sides in cricket.
After the losses against South Africa, New Zealand lost a series in England later in 2013, but since then it has only lost two series out of 11, both against Australia, who also beat it in the 2015 ICC World Cup final.
McCullum has retired, passing the captaincy baton to Kane Williamson, whose assignment in charge was the recent series in Zimbabwe, where New Zealand won both Tests comfortably.
It has helped that Tom Latham and Martin Guptill, have been formidable at the top, while Ross Taylor has been a guiding force in the middle order.
New Zealand will have to decide whether to use two spinners to back up the pace trio of Tim Southee, Trent Boult and Neil Wagner.
It will be a battle of inexperienced captains, with Faf du Plessis standing in for the injured AB de Villiers, who led South Africa only twice since being appointed midway through the series against England last season.
South Africa: Faf du Plessis (capt), Dean Elgar, Stephen Cook, Hashim Amla, JP Duminy, Temba Bavuma, Quinton de Kock (wk), Vernon Philander, Dale Steyn, Dane Piedt, Kagiso Rabada.
New Zealand: Kane Williamson (capt), Martin Guptill, Tom Latham, Ross Taylor, Henry Nicholls, BJ Watling (wk), Mitchell Santner, Tim Southee, Ish Sodhi, Neil Wagner, Trent Boult, Doug Bracewell, Mark Craig, Matt Henry, Luke Ronchi (wk), Jeet Raval.