Dean Elgar scored his seventh Test century on a day described by him as one of the toughest in his career. Photograph: (AFP)
The Proteas were reduced to 22 for three before Elgar and skipper Faf du Plessis stitched a century-run partnership
Century maker Dean Elgar described the opening day of the first Test against New Zealand Wednesday as one of the toughest of his career after he rescued South Africa from a woeful start.
After batting throughout the day at Dunedin's University oval, the opener was unbeaten on 128 with South Africa 229 for four at stumps.
His unbeaten 81-run stand for the fifth wicket with Temba Bavuma (not out 38) put South Africa in a position of relative strength after losing three quick wickets in the morning session.
"It was one of the tougher days of Test cricket so far in my career," said the 29-year-old left-hander who was dropped by wicketkeeper BJ Watling on 36 before going on to complete his seventh Test century.
"I nicked it and BJ dropped it and happy days. I'm sitting with a smile on my face at the end of day one.
"We were looking at (a total of) about 250-280 at tea time and now, being in a good position of not losing a wicket in the last session, we can re-adjust. I think maybe 450 on that wicket."
Elgar, who went into the match with an average of 38.60 from 50 Test innings, said he had to rely on his stubbornness at the crease to get through the day.
"I'm not very talented and free-scoring like others guys are, so you've got to use your advantages and that's obviously my ability to guts it out and grind it," he said.
Elgar admitted to being surprised New Zealand had dropped "their trump card" in strike bowler Tim Southee to make room for an extra spinner.
It was a decision which New Zealand coach Mike Hesson said was not taken lightly but with the state of the wicket he was hoping to have batted first and have two spinners available in the fourth innings.
"I think South Africa's slightly ahead. Four down in a day's Test cricket is a pretty good effort," he said.
"When you play two spinners you obviously want to bowl last but I thought the spinners did a good job on day one of the Test match in terms of a holding role."
After South Africa's early slump, Elgar set the tone for the revival with a 126-run stand for the fourth wicket with captain Faf du Plessis before being joined by Bavuma just before tea.
On a day of wavering fortunes, there was nothing normal about the start of the Test where even the brown-green wicket was not the customary emerald top expected in New Zealand.
When du Plessis won the toss he became the first captain in 23 Tests to bat first.
New Zealand dropped regular bowling spearhead Southee for the first time in five years to make way for Jeetan Patel.
It was the first time in seven years they had fielded two spinners on a home wicket.
The miserly Patel was brought into the attack in the sixth over and conceded only eight runs in his first 10 overs with South Africa restricted to 63 for three in the first session.
But as the New Zealand bowlers tired, South Africa added 90 for the loss of one wicket in the middle session and 76 without loss after tea.
Left-armers Trent Boult and Wagner did the early damage for New Zealand with Boult's first nine overs claiming the wicket of Stephen Cook and yielding only eight runs.
South African-born Wagner, returning to top level cricket for the first time since breaking a finger on his bowling hand five weeks ago, removed Hashim Amla and JP Duminy in one over on his adopted home ground.
Jimmy Neesham was New Zealand's other successful bowler taking the valuable wicket of du Plessis for 52.
Although the pitch offered little support for the bowlers, for the batsmen it was a constant struggle to score with 30 maidens among the 90 overs bowled.