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South African attack bolstered ahead of New Zealand tests

By Greg Stutchbury

WELLINGTON (Reuters) - South Africa will miss AB de Villiers following his decision to opt out of test cricket this year but their ranks have been bolstered by the return of Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander for the three-match series against New Zealand.

Both players missed the limited-overs fixtures of the ongoing tour, with Morkel having recovered from a career-threatening back injury and Philander dealing with a nagging ankle problem.

South Africa have won their last three test series and will head to England for a full tour starting in May.

Their three-match series in New Zealand, which kicks off at University Oval in Dunedin on Wednesday, could be a chance to work Morkel and Philander back into test form.

South Africa coach Russell Domingo said that while the absence of influential batsman de Villiers would be keenly felt in the test series, they had no option but to move on.

De Villiers's flashing bat produced 262 runs in the five one-day matches at an average of 87.33, while his calm assuredness guided the side through several tense moments in New Zealand.

"Anybody, any coach, would want AB de Villiers in their side but he has made a decision and we respect that decision," he said. "We all definitely wanted him to stay but it's a decision he has made for family life.

"He will be missed but we've gone through a series against Sri Lanka and a series in Australia without him so the game goes on. As good as anyone is, the game goes on."

Should Morkel and Philander replicate past form against New Zealand, however, de Villiers may not be missed much at all.

Morkel's best bowling in an innings of 6-23 came against New Zealand and while is career average is 29.33, against the hosts it is 20.94.

Philander's career best bowling of 6-44 also came against New Zealand, with an average of 15.53. His career average is 21.40.

The pair are likely to join Kagiso Rabada in an impressive pace attack after the 21-year-old showed in the final one-day international in Auckland on Saturday that he was warming to New Zealand conditions.

On several occasions he got the ball to jump off a length and caused discomfort with the rising delivery, a tactic that will be used far more often in the longest format of the game.

South Africa will also be without fast bowler Dale Steyn, who is still recovering from a broken shoulder.

New Zealand have an abysmal record against South Africa, having won just four of the previous 42 test matches. The Proteas have won 24.

Just one of New Zealand's wins has been at home, in Auckland in 2004 when right-arm swing bowler Chris Martin took a career-best 11-180 to lead his side to a nine-wicket victory.

Williamson's team are still looking to find their right mix, with Henry Nicholls establishing himself in the number five batting position. Martin Guptill is looking to reinvent himself as a middle-order test batsman, though, having struggled to transfer his limited overs form as an opener into tests.

Selectors are also still debating on the all-rounder role, with Colin de Grandhomme and Jimmy Neesham in competition for Dunedin while Mitchell Santner's left-arm spin is still developing, earning a recall for offspinner Jeetan Patel.

(Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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