It has been seven years since the men from New Zealand visited Sri Lanka to play a Test series. In the times when there are serious questions about the future of Test cricket, it seems rather dismaying that the two nations do not play Test series as often as the Big Fours have played each other.
The New Zealand team has toured Sri Lanka a total of seven times but barring their first tour here in 1983-84, they have not won a single series. Thrice the Sri Lankan team has come out on top and twice the series has ended in a draw, including the last series in 2012-13 that ended 1-1. However, a total of 15 Tests on the Sri Lankan soil between these two sides stand at a fairly even split. The Lankan lions have won six of these Tests and the visitors have won four, while five Tests have ended in a draw.
The New Zealand team has always defied the statistics. In the World Cup 2019, they were constantly behind the eight-ball against all other teams on batting numbers but they managed to come together to win all but one significant moment.
Similarly, in Tests in subcontinent, no other batsman apart from Kane Williamson (60.7) and Henry Nicholls (44.6) average 40 since December 2012. The number suggests that the team has struggled on dry slow pitches, but the New Zealand team overall has lost just one series out of the four in subcontinent in this period. The loss came against India when they lost 2-0 in 2016-17. They drew against Bangladesh in 2013-14 (0-0) and Pakistan in UAE (1-1) in 2014-15. Their last visit in the subcontinent was a 2-1 series victory against Pakistan in UAE in 2018-19.
Unlike the World Cup, even the New Zealand bowlers do not have good numbers to show in the subcontinent since December 2012. The only bowler with a strike-rate of less than 50 is the off-spinner William Somerville (48 balls per wicket) who has played just one test, against Pakistan in UAE in 2018. No other bowler feature in the top 50 bowlers list as per strike rate in subcontinent in this period. The left-arm spinner Ajaz patel, has the next best strike rate (62.6). He took a five-for in the washed out practice match against the Sri Lanka Board President’s XI and will look to carry that form in the Test series.
Just as they demonstrated in the World Cup, the New Zealand team feeds off each other and manage to do just enough to maximise their chances in a cricket match.
The home team
Sri Lanka has always been a very strong side at home. While they have been into an everlasting rebuilding phase since the greats like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene have retired, their performance in Test matches at home especially against the teams outside the subcontinent has continued to be strong. Since December 2012, they have lost only to South Africa (in 2014) and England (2018) in six home series against the teams outside the subcontinent.
The anomaly against England towards the end of 2018 saw them losing all three matches of the series. To be fair to them, they were hit by a very strong England side and lost the toss in all the three games. It is always difficult to bat last on the unpredictable fifth day sub-continent wickets and English spinners made full use of these tracks.
Sri Lanka, under a new Test captain in Dimuth Karunaratne who led Sri Lanka to be the first Asian team to win a Test series in South Africa earlier this year, would want to brush the defeat against England aside and substantiate the re-building phase.
The home side is also boosted by the return of seniors and former captains like Angelo Matthews and Dinesh Chandimal who along with Dhananjaya de Silva are the three batsmen who average more than 40 in subcontinent since December 2012.
This will be the first series that Sri Lanka will play at home since Rangana Herath’s retirement at the end of the series against England last year. Herath was able to fill the void created by the great Muttiah Muralitharan and won Sri Lanka a considerable number of games single handedly. The baton of carrying Sri Lankan spin bowling legacy now passes on to a young spinner in Akila Dananjaya who will be supported by others in the squad like Lakshan Sandakan and Lasith Embuldeniya.
Among the pacers, after a great series against South Africa where he took 16 wickets in three matches, young left-arm quick Vishwa Fernando will expect to get a nod to share the new ball with the experienced Suranga Lakmal
Sri Lanka has a decent record at Galle where they have lost four out of the 11 Tests they have played here since December 2012. They have won six and one has been a draw. The last time these two teams met here in 2012, resulted in a 10-wicket rout for the visitors.
Just like all the subcontinent wickets, batting at Galle becomes difficult with each passing innings. Since December 2012, the batting average has dipped from 43.1 in the first innings to 21.3 in the fourth innings.
Contrary to the popular notion, the difference observed for the assistance to pacers and spinners is not much. Since December 2012, the pacers have picked up 126 wickets at an average of 35.4 and a strike-rate of 62.4 whereas; the spinners have taken 233 wickets at somewhat similar average of 32.6 and a strike-rate of 59.4.
Of-course, all this build-up is subjected to the mercy of the rain gods. The weather forecast does not look promising with 50-90% probability of rain on each of the five days.
Sri Lanka: Dimuth Karunaratne (captain), Kusal Janith Perera, Dhananjaya De Silva, Kusal Mendis, Angelo Mathews, Dinesh Chandimal, Niroshan Dickwella (wicket-keeper), Akila Dananjaya, Suranga Lakmal, Lakshan Sandakan and Vishwa Fernando
New Zealand: Tom Latham, Jeet Raval, Kane Williamson (captain), Ross Taylor, Henry Nicholls, BJ Watling (wicket-keeper), Mitchell Santner, Will Somerville, Neil Wagner, Ajaz Patel and Trent Boult.