Wellington: Two of the strongest contenders to win next year's Cricket World Cup, New Zealand and South Africa, begin their preparations for the tournament Tuesday in the first match of a three-match one-day international series.
South Africa captain AB de Villiers said as World Cup co-hosts, New Zealand had to be regarded as one of the leading contenders to lift the trophy next March. New Zealand has also reached the semifinals of the world tournament on seven occasions: a record matched only by co-host Australia.
"Winning comes first," said the South African skipper. "We want to win as many games of cricket as possible leading up to the World Cup. We know that there is a lot more value to winning games than experimenting and trying out different combinations."
"It would be nice but if we are dealt with a situation where we are able to play all 15, that would be great. We have eight ODI's all together in New Zealand and Australia, and in eight games you should use more than just 11 players, so hopefully without trying too much it will happen that way."
Wayne Parnell is the only serious injury concern ahead of the first match and will not be available for selection. He is recovering well from his shoulder injury, and is expected to play the second match on Friday.
South Africa are number two in ICC ODI team rankings and will use this series to increase their experience of conditions in New Zealand where they will play three World Cup pool games.
Tuesday's match is the first of 17 one-day internationals New Zealand will play before the start of the World Cup in February. Head coach Mike Hesson will use those matches to refine selection before his World Cup squad of 15 is named on Jan. 8.
"We're quite open minded. We've got a lot of games and we want to see how people cope and consider that along with performances in the past at pressure times," Hesson said. "It's the start of a pretty major campaign and for us and to have competition for places we need players standing up. We'll certainly be preparing to start well."
Injuries to New Zealand's two leading batsmen, Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor, have forced Hesson to tap the depth of his squad earlier than he would have liked. Taylor will miss the South African series with a calf muscle strain and Williamson will miss at least the opening match with a wrist injury.
Dean Brownlie and Tom Latham have been named in their place and will face a searching test from the South Africa pace attack as they attempt to push World Cup claims.
Pace bowling spearhead Tim Southee is also likely to miss Tuesday's match as he continues a recovery from a shoulder injury. In his absence, Hesson will be able to assess the form of Trent Boult, who has excelled in tests but played his most recent one-day international in February last year, and Matt Henry, who took 4-38 on debut against India in January.
The South African series will also test the fitness of former captain Daniel Vettori who returns to the New Zealand squad after an absence of more than a year during which he has battled an ankle injury.
The 35-year-old Vettori played for a New Zealand XI against Scotland last week, bowling 10 overs without apparent discomfort, but he will need a much more sustained display of fitness before his inclusion in the World Cup squad is assured.
New Zealand beat South Africa 2-1 in South Africa when the teams last met in a one-day series but the Proteas swept the most-recent series between the teams in New Zealand.
The current series will be completed with matches in Tauranga on Friday and Hamilton on Monday and South Africa will then fly to Australia for a series of five one-dayers and three Twenty20 internationals.
"I think the important thing is to just get a bit of confidence over there against two teams I see as a threat at the World Cup — Australia and New Zealand," de Villiers said. "Mentally and physically, it would be a really good way for us to get on top of them before the World Cup starts."
One of South Africa's most pressing issues remains to find players who can fill the shoes of retired allrounder Jacques Kallis. The Proteas have played and won two one-day series since Kallis' quit but haven't yet found a complete answer to the loss of his contribution with the bat and ball.
Faf du Plessis has taken his place in the Proteas top-order but his bowling has been more difficult to replace.
De Villiers said both Kallis and retired captain Graeme Smith were missed but South Africa must move on.
"They'll always be remembered in South Africa for what they have achieved as players and as leaders," he said. "But we've moved on from that now and we had no choice.
"The guys that came in have brought a different set of skills and different personalities. More than ever in Zimbabwe I felt the boys right behind me so that's a good sign heading into the World Cup."