CHRISTCHURCH: New Zealand enter unfamiliar territory when the first Test against South Africa begins in Christchurch on Thursday, without batting greats Ross Taylor and Kane Williamson.
It has been 14 years since the hosts started a Test without either Taylor or Williamson -- their top two all-time Test run scorers respectively -- and they have the extra burden of trying to win a series against South Africa for the first time.
Taylor retired last month and Williamson is injured, leaving the Black Caps without the pair's steadying influence against a dynamic Proteas pace attack.
South Africa arrived on a high after completing a double of Test and one-day series wins at home against India.
New Zealand coach Gary Stead admitted his team face a tough challenge in the two-Test series. "They're obviously a quality side, capable of beating India in South Africa," he said.
"They've got classy players throughout and while they lack some experience you certainly can't underestimate them."
New Zealand are also without pace spearhead Trent Boult, who is awaiting the birth of a child, with Matt Henry coming in as a replacement.
Batsman Devon Conway and fast bowler Neil Wagner were both born and raised in South Africa and Stead said they would relish playing the Proteas.
"From our perspective they're true-blue Kiwis now, even though they might have slight accents at times," he said.
"They're working hard for the 'Silver Fern' but I guess playing against South Africa will be exciting for them as well."
The inaugural World Test champions begin the series as favourites, lying second in the ICC Test rankings, with South Africa fifth.
But they have never won a Test series against South Africa and have recorded only one home victory over the Proteas in 20 attempts.
Former Black Caps skipper Brendon McCullum said South Africa under captain Dean Elgar were "tough, gritty, they don't give you an inch".
"I think this will be a ripper series, I'm predicting it could be 1-1 but I actually have South Africa going in as slight favourites," he said.
"That's pretty hard considering how good New Zealand have been in the last little while."
Elgar was wary of New Zealand's threat on a quick wicket at Christchurch's Hagley Oval but said the India series showed South Africa could cope with pace.
"With respect, New Zealand's attack are a little bit down on pace compared to the Indian attack," he said.
"In saying that, they execute their skills perfectly in their conditions."