New Zealand’s hopes of winning a Test series in Sri Lanka - 36 years after a victorious maiden tour to the island country - took a hit when Dimuth Karunaratne guided his team to a record run-chase in Galle. At a ground where the highest successful run-chase before the first Test was only 99 in its 21 years of Test history comprising of 32 matches. Karunaratne’s hundred took the team to an improbable target of 268 without any fuss.
As a result, New Zealand will be chasing the eight-ball in the two-match series, something they did successfully on their last tour of Sri Lanka in 2012, when the Kiwis turned the tables around on the home side in the second Test at P. Sara Oval, the same venue where the two sides will be playing the second Test on Thursday.
One big positive for New Zealand is the fact that the four main architects of the series-levelling victory in 2012 are still a prominent part of the side - Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor scored hundreds while Tim Southee and Trent Boult shared 15 wickets between them.
The Blackcaps will be relying on the quartet once again to attain parity in the series, especially on Kane Williamson. The Kiwi skipper has been the backbone of his team’s batting resources in Test cricket ever since his debut as he has contributed almost one fifth of team runs in their victories.
Williamson is, in fact, the only batsman to average over 50 runs per dismissal in New Zealand’s Test history (minimum 1,000 runs). In Sri Lanka, however, he has yielded underwhelming results, averaging only 27.8 runs per dismissal. Except the aforementioned 135 in Colombo in 2012, his scores in the island country reads 0, 10, 18, 0, 4.
With Williamson’s average on the lower side in Sri Lankan conditions, New Zealand will look to their most experienced batsman, Ross Taylor. Taylor has an average of 49.1 in Sri Lanka, the highest amongst the current crop of Kiwi batsmen. The secret of Taylor’s success in Sri Lanka lies behind a great execution of the sweep shot to tackle the spinners. The shot accounted for 22 of his 68 runs against the spinners in the last Test at Galle and has been his most productive shot in the island country.
Despite their batting concerns, New Zealand have much more questions to answer in the bowling department. What is more worrisome is the fact that their trouble starts with their bowling stalwart, Trent Boult, who has not been able to emulate his bowling heroics in the Asian conditions. Looking at the ease with which Karunaratne and co. cruised to a daunting total of 268 in Galle, Williamson might be tempted to play Neil Wagner to unsettle the Sri Lankan batsmen.
In the past, the Kiwis have often followed the policy of resting Tim Southee from the XI whenever they have needed to add an extra spinner/all-rounder owing to the conditions. This might be a game to bench Boult and keep Southee, who has a better record than Boult, in the side.
Another option for the visitors is to drop one of their three spinners - Mitchell Santner, William Somerville and Ajaz Patel - all of whom are finger spinners. Dropping anyone of them would be a big call as Santner gives the side an all-round option while Somerwille and Patel have not done any wrong in their brief Test career so far.
On the other hand, Sri Lanka is on a winning streak in Test cricket with three consecutive Test wins and the honour of holding the top spot in the early days of the World Test Championship. They have found batting heroes in Dimuth Karunaratne, Kusal Mendis and Kusal Perera. But the home side received a minor setback when Akila Dananjaya was once again reported for a suspect action. However, he will continue to be the X-factor in Sri Lanka’s bowling attack. Only six Test matches old in his career, Dananjaya has four five-wicket hauls to his name and will be the go-to bowler for Sri Lanka in their attempt to win their second consecutive Test series.
Dimuth Karunaratne ( c ), Lahiru Thirimanne, Kusal Mendis, Angelo Mathews, Kusal Perera, Dhananjaya de Silva, Niroshan Dickwella (wk), Akila Dananjaya, Suranga Lakmal, Lasith Embuldeniya, Lahiru Kumara
Jeet Raval, Tom Latham, Kane Williamson ( c ), Ross Taylor, Henry Nicholls, BJ Watling, Mitchell Santner, Tim Southee, William Somerville, Neil Wagner, Ajaz Patel