The only thing that stood between South Africa and the back of Kane Williamson was their 58-over old ball. Or so they thought.
It was a ball which South Africa started preparing, yesterday, before Williamson was even on their minds. With one side as shiny as a family's prized silver and the other scuffed up by strategic throws from the outfielders, that ball had started to reverse and would soon do the damage that South Africa wanted.
So you can imagine the visitors' annoyance when, two balls into the 59th over, the players were told by the umpires that the ball had gone out of shape and that it needed replacement. While the ball was being checked with the aid of the hoop that the umpires keep handy, Faf du Plessis was having a word, doubtless to try and convince them that said-ball was still in good working order. South Africa, though, had to accept a replacement ball - and not their ball - to try and dislodge Williamson.
The replacement ball would be in the same age-bracket but not nearly as carefully cared for; the Harrison Ford to a Keith Richards. Williamson's first dealing with it was to punch it through midwicket off Keshav Maharaj to reach a half-century. On the other end, Vernon Philander had not quite accepted that he can't always get what he wants and five overs later he complained, asking for the old ball back. His request was denied and, for good measure, Williamson smacked him for six as if to say, "I like this ball just fine, thanks." Philander saved his response for when he was taken off and the new (and despised) ball dared to come near him. Instead of throwing it, he rolled it back in protest.
Call it petulance, call it wounded pride but Philander was not the only one feeling the frustration in the post-lunch session. It was the only time in the series South Africa had gone wicket-less and the only time all their attempts to make something happen were blunted. The ball was one reason, but Williamson was the bigger one.
The class and calm he brings to the crease can be summed up in one shot: the straight six off Maharaj, when he shimmied down the pitch, picked the ball up, as though holding a baby bird and then letting it fly, over the sightscreen. In that shot was all of Williamson, from timing and technique to calculated risk and delicate aggression. And that was before South Africa lost their precious ball and before they decided that they needed to hatch some special plan to rid themselves of another problem-player in Jeet Raval, who was greeted after lunch with three slips, two gullies and a snarling Morne Morkel.
South Africa already had some idea of Raval's staying power because he had been simmering all series. He was tight outside off, showed patience and valued his wicket. His 80 in Wellington was already the highest score by a New Zealand opening batsman against South Africa this century. They didn't want Raval to become the first New Zealand Test opener to score a hundred against them since 1953 and so they laid a trap and asked Morkel to bait him by bowling outside off stump.
It worked almost immediately when Raval followed a fuller delivery but the edge fell short of the fielder at second gully. Morkel moved in closer, getting the ball to angle in and Raval left one that went close enough to off stump to leave him wondering if he should have played. He went after the next tester, angled across him, and again fell in the region of the close-in fielders. For 40 minutes in the middle session, Raval had to navigate the combination of a fired up Morkel and a feisty cordon but he survived and reached fifty in the process.
What followed was a battle against Maharaj, with balls spitting out the rough, and when Raval came through that, a maiden hundred seemed just reward. Nobody wanted Raval to get there more than Williamson, who managed to craft his own century while simultaneously outscoring his partner, and coaxed the young batsman.
The captain performed the ultimate multitask, making Raval feel "like a clown on one end with a master batting at the other".
Williamson's run-making off an increasingly impatient South African attack caused them to default back to a short-ball approach which simply wasn't threatening enough on this surface. He sensed that the bowlers were tiring and began to apply pressure. In doing that, he ensured the total never stagnated, even while Raval did. As the second new ball arrived and Raval entered the 80s, he spent 24 balls stuck on 83 and began to look more fidgety than he has all series.
At the other end, Williamson was playing a different game, which is why South Africa placed a higher price on his wicket before this series even began. They knew he was capable of something like this.
The century Williamson struck in Dunedin was quickly spoken about as one of the best of his career because it came in a tough situation - Ross Taylor was out injured - but this one confirms him as a modern great. At 26, Williamson is already one of only six New Zealand players to have 5,000 Test runs to his name, has equalled Martin Crowe's record for the most number of Test centuries for his country - 17 - and has hundreds against every other Test playing nation. And he is doing it at a time when New Zealand's line-up is fragile.
Though they may have found an opening pair in Tom Latham and Raval, their middle-order, in Taylor's absence, only has Williamson to really add gravitas. That's a lot of responsibility for a man who also has to lead the team on the field but, so far, he is handling it well. Even after South Africa caused a wobble when they took 3 for 20, Williamson put New Zealand in the lead for the second time in the series. And the ball - both the new and the old one - was not what stood between South Africa and the back of the home captain. It was Williamson's resolve and runs that did.