The series shapes up as a mismatch, with eighth-ranked New Zealand hit by injuries and the withdrawal of former captain and star batsman Ross Taylor, but coach Gary Kirsten said the South Africans would not take victory for granted.
Kirsten said South Africa wanted to start a busy year of Test cricket on a strong note after capturing and then retaining the number one spot with successive away series wins against England and Australia.
“We had a good meeting around the year ahead,” said Kirsten. “We’re likely to have ten Test matches in 2013, and what we do as a team is set our goals about what we want to achieve for the year. The New Zealand series will be an important stepping stone to that.
“The success of our team in 2012 was the fact that we remained humble in our play, we never took any situation or any team for granted. We made sure that our preparation was spot on and that, when we got into Test match time, we set up solid foundations to give ourselves the best chance of success. We will treat this series no differently.”
Nothing less than a 2-0 series win will be necessary for South Africa to improve their ranking points – and even then they will only gain one point. If they win the series 1-0 they will lose a point, while if they lose the series 1-0 they will shed seven points and lose their top spot to England.
New Zealand are likely to rely on a handful of top players, with captain Brendon McCullum, Martin Guptill and Kane Williamson their key batsmen.
Guptill made a century in a Twenty20 international against South Africa, while all three made half-centuries in their side’s three-day warm-up match against a South African Invitation XI in Paarl.
Williamson made New Zealand’s only century when the teams met in three Tests in New Zealand earlier this year. South Africa won the series 1-0.
Left-arm opening bowler Trent Boult and the experienced Chris Martin will be NewZealand’s bowling spearheads in the absence of the injured Tim Southee and Daniel Vettori.
South Africa have an injury concern over new ball bowler Vernon Philander, who is recovering from a hamstring strain but can call on two of the world’s leading fast bowlers in Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, while their batting bulges with proven world-class performers such as captain Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers.
South Africa - Graeme Smith (capt), Alviro Petersen, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers (wkt), Faf du Plessis, Dean Elgar, Jacques Rudolph, Robin Peterson, Vernon Philander, Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Rory Kleinveldt
New Zealand - Brendon McCullum (capt), Martin Guptill, Kane Williamson, Daniel Flynn, Dean Brownlie, BJ Watling (wkt), James Franklin, Colin Munro, Doug Bracewell, Neil Wagner, Trent Boult, Jeetan Patel, Bruce Martin, Chris Martin, Mitchell McClenaghan
Umpires: Ian Gould (ENG), Rod Tucker (AUS)
TV umpire: Kumar Dharmasena (SRI). Match referee: David Boon (AUS)
Jan 2-6, First Test, Cape Town
Jan 11-15, Second Test, Port Elizabeth