The attack has the excuse of inexperience. They have not toured New Zealand anywhere near as much, have a much more complicated history with injuries, and anyway are treated with borderline disdain at home, where pitches frequently make them comedic props in the spin bowlers’ dramatic production. And while New Zealand have had a difficult World Test Championship cycle, their batting order is studded with an all-time superstar in Kane Williamson, a reliable hand in Tom Latham, and batters who have made very bright starts to what promise to be long careers in Devon Conway, Daryl Mitchell, and Tom Blundell.
Their bowling? Well, you’ve kinda gotta maybe say that they were a more daunting proposition in the bad old days when Trent Boult and Tim Southee curved the ball snarl viciously from either end, before Neil Wagner summoned bouncers from the depths of hell in the peak Wagnerball era.
If one didn’t nick you off swinging it one way, the other would get you lbw swinging it the other. And if you survived all of that, the other guy would jam your fingers against the bat with a ball that rocketed off the pitch, his team-mates gathering around to kindly check on you as you writhed around in pain, knowing your tour was over.
It is almost to be expected that Sri Lanka’s attack had as poor a first innings as they did in Wellington. On day one, they were battling a near-gale. On top of which, New Zealand’s best batter was incandescent. And there was also the debutant wicketkeeper, who missed a vital catch (he missed a straightforward one off Henry Nicholls on the first evening).
“Their bowling inexperience had made a victory almost impossible, but on day three, batting incompetence sent Sri Lanka nosediving towards defeat”
But for Sri Lanka’s batters to have as poor a day three as this? Just a single 50-plus partnership, and all out for 164, in testing, but not unplayable batting conditions? Their bowling inexperience had made a victory almost impossible, but on day three, batting incompetence sent Sri Lanka nosediving towards defeat.
Across that first innings, Sri Lanka made what might be termed rookie mistakes. Late on day two, Mendis saw a short, wide delivery, and failed to hit it far enough away from Conway, who dived spectacularly to his left to intercept it. Mendis has been at the ground for a number of otherworldly New Zealand catches. When they are feeling themselves, this is what New Zealand do.
Then, the next day, Mathews fished at one he shouldn’t have. Chandimal charged offspinner Michael Bracewell and went through with his doomed heave to legside when he might have played defensively when he realised he wasn’t getting to the pitch of the ball. Dhananjaya de Silva ran at Bracewell also, and chipped him softly to the catcher at midwicket – perhaps the softest dismissal of the day. Karunaratne played much better than his team-mates, reaching 50 twice in one day. But then he failed to make a century out of either one, holing out twice in the deep, with no need to fall this way in the second innings.
Sri Lanka are now faced with an almost impossible climb. They are 303 runs behind, with eight wickets in hand. New Zealand’s bowlers have bowled almost 110 overs in succession, so there is hope the visitors can subject them to further fatigue, batting a wicketless first session out first thing on Monday, then clawing back the lead in the afternoon. It would not be the first time Mathews and Mendis have put on a big stand at the Basin Reserve.
But Sri Lanka once again require a second-innings miracle to make something out of this game. The top order had the experience to bail out their inexperienced attack. Instead, in the first innings, they went down in abject fashion.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo’s Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf