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With an outside shot at WTC final, Sri Lanka step outside Asia after two years

Last updated on 08 Mar 2023 | 07:14 AM
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With an outside shot at WTC final, Sri Lanka step outside Asia after two years

In 19 Tests in New Zealand, Sri Lanka have managed to win only two, the last being in 2006

It’s been a while since Sri Lanka played Test cricket, over seven months to be more precise. Dimuth Karunaratne and his men are now in New Zealand for a two-match Test series, starting on Thursday (March 9) in Christchurch, and have an outside chance of making it through to the World Test Championship final.

Before we get into what Sri Lanka need to do, India have to lose or draw their fourth and final Test against Australia in Ahmedabad. Steven Smith and Co. managed to pull off a rare win in Indore but replicating the same twice in a row is going to be extremely difficult. There’s a reason why India have lost only three Tests at home in the last 10 years.

Sri Lanka can’t control what is going to happen in Ahmedabad, but whitewashing New Zealand at home is not going to be easy. They have to win both these Tests if they want to feature in the WTC final. In 19 Tests in the country, Sri Lanka have managed to win only two, the last being in 2006. In fact, they have lost five of their last six Tests in New Zealand.  

The Black Caps, who won the inaugural edition of the WTC, have been way below-par in this cycle. They have won only two of their 11 Tests in this edition and are placed eighth on the points table. They recently did beat England by one run after being enforced to follow-on (not part of WTC), but New Zealand are no more unbeatable at home as they were in the last cycle. 

Things to watch out for

Southee, Wagner need to step up

The pace quartet of Tim Southee, Neil Wagner, Trent Boult and Kyle Jamieson played a massive role in New Zealand winning their maiden ICC title. However, New Zealand’s seam attack hasn’t been at their best in this cycle. Jamieson has been injured of late, while Boult has opted out of his national contract.

They still have Southee and Wagner, but both these seamers have been averaging close to 35 in this WTC cycle. Skipper Southee, who took 70 wickets @ 21.2 in the last cycle, has claimed 45 wickets in 13 Tests @ 37.1 since the last WTC final. Meanwhile, Wagner did redeem himself in the last innings of the second Test against England, but an average of 33.5 looks mediocre compared to his 22.87 in the last cycle. 

NZ batters struggling at home

The Black Caps didn’t lose a single Test at home in the last WTC edition, and their batters played a massive role in that. As a batting unit, New Zealand operated at an impressive average of 51.3 at home in the last cycle, which has dropped to 32.8 in the current cycle (including Tests outside the WTC). Devon Conway (528 runs @ 52.8) and Tom Blundell (481 runs @ 53.44) have been the only two NZ batters who have done well at home in the ongoing WTC cycle. 

Tom Latham is averaging close to 42, but 252 of his 417 runs came in that one innings against Bangladesh. The opener hasn’t touched the 20-run mark in seven out of his last 10 innings. Henry Nicholls (296 @ 29.6), Daryl Mitchell (227 @ 32.43) and Will Young (196 @ 24.5) have all been below par, while Kane Williamson has only played two out of NZ’s last six home Tests. The 32-year-old, however, would be high on confidence after that 132 in the second Test against England in Wellington.

Onus on Sri Lankan batters

Sri Lanka have an inexperienced bowling attack, especially in these conditions, so a lot will rely on their senior batters. Angelo Mathews (503 runs @ 55.89) and Kusal Mendis (356 @ 50.86) have an average of above 50 in New Zealand. As mentioned above, Sri Lanka have lost five of their last six Tests in New Zealand, and the only one they managed to draw was because of these two. 

The duo batted out an entire day together to script an epic rescue act in Wellington in December 2018. Karunaratne has a century and two fifties in 12 innings in New Zealand, while Dinesh Chandimal has four half-centuries across nine innings in this country. New Zealand’s bowling unit hasn’t been in great form of late, and the only way Sri Lanka can emerge victorious in this series is if their batters put up big runs on the board.

Pitch and conditions

The Hagley Oval in Christchurch has hosted five Tests since 2020, and the batters here have scored runs at an average of 30.7, while a wicket has fallen every 54.9 deliveries. The fast bowlers here have an average of 27.4 and a strike rate of 51.1, while the corresponding numbers for spinners are 60.6 and 83.6 respectively. On top of that, spinners have an economy of 4.3 in the aforementioned time frame.

Tactical Nous

- We all know Wagner loves bowling short, but he will have to be careful against Mathews. The 35-year-old averages 70 against Wagner and also doesn’t mind playing back of length (8-10m) and short (10m+) deliveries, averaging close to 70 on such lengths since 2020. However, Southee has dismissed him seven times across 17 innings and has an average of 25.1 against the middle-order batter.

- Blundell has been New Zealand’s best batter in this format since 2022 (1036 runs in 19 innings at an average of 60.94). The wicketkeeper-batter has an average of more than 120 against spin in this time period but could be targetted with short stuff. Blundell has a strike rate of close to 90 on back of length (8-10m) and short (10m+) deliveries but has also gotten out five times since 2022. It’s just a high-risk-high-reward approach.

Team combination

Kane Williamson, who was at home to mourn the death of his grandmother, has joined the New Zealand set-up and will be available for the first Test. The hosts are likely to play the same XI that featured in the second Test against England.

New Zealand’s probable XI - Tom Latham, Devon Conway, Kane Williamson, Will Young, Henry Nicholls, Daryl Mitchell, Tom Blundell (wk), Michael Bracewell, Tim Southee (c), Matt Henry, Neil Wagner.

Sri Lanka are playing outside Asia after close to two years, meaning they won’t have the luxury to fill their XI with spinners. The batting unit looks sorted, but Sri Lanka will have to pick between Ramesh Mendis and Prabath Jayasuriya. The visitors can play fast-bowling all-rounder Chamika Karunaratne at No. 8, and that will allow them to play in-form left-arm spinner Jayasuriya.

Sri Lanka’s probable XI - Dimuth Karunaratne (c), Oshada Fernando, Kusal Mendis, Angelo Mathews, Dinesh Chandimal, Dhananjaya de Silva, Niroshan Dickwella (wk), Chamika Karunaratne, Prabath Jayasuriya, Asitha Fernando, Kasun Rajitha.

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