Sri Lanka 275 for 9 (Mathews 83, Karunaratne 79, Dickwella 73*,Southee 5-67) v New Zealand
Sri Lanka forced New Zealand into exploring a Plan B - full marks there - and then failed to trust their techniques to negotiate the barrage of short-pitched stuff they knew would come. This meant a succession of rash strokes nearly handed the advantage to New Zealand as Tim Southee walked away with a five-wicket haul on the opening day of New Zealand's home summer at Basin Reserve in Wellington.
But, they were bailed out by Niroshan Dickwella, who made 73 not out to build on the 133-run stand between Dimuth Karunaratne and Angelo Mathews as Sri Lanka went into stumps on 275 for 9, losing Kasun Rajitha off the last over to give Trent Boult his first wicket.
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Dickwella's Test-match batting at the best of time has bordered on the flashy and it wasn't too different on Saturday. Who attempts to scoop a bowler who has just picked a five-for, that too with the second new ball? Who attempts a ramp off the most hostile left-arm fast bowler in recent memory? Fortunately, for Dickwella and Sri Lanka, this tactic paid off as he hit 10 boundaries in his 91-ball vigil.
On 28 when Sri Lanka lost their seventh wicket, of Dilruwan Perera, he pinched 45 more through partnerships with Suranga Lakmal and Kasun Rajitha, not for once being afraid to take risks to keep strike, to give Sri Lanka's bowlers hope of a sizable first-innings score to defend.
Strangely enough, this didn't seem a possibility when Sri Lanka were tottering at 9 for 3 inside six overs after being put on a greenish surface. Then Karunaratne and Mathews knuckled down to frustrate the pace pack as Sri Lanka reached a point where they could've driven home the advantage with another 20 minutes of patience.
Who knows what could've been? Kane Williamson may have turned to left-arm spinner Ajaz Patel to play a holding role or given the ball to Colin de Grandhomme to give his faster men a break? We wouldn't know, because both set batsmen fell into the short-ball trap on either side of tea.
The trigger was pulled by Neil Wagner, as he often does when New Zealand go through a wicketless phase. The method: a predictable yet fearsome short-ball barrage from round the stumps to attack the batsman's rib cage. Karunaratne buoyed by two neat pull shots to the boundary, wasn't third-time lucky as he gloved one through to BJ Watling down the leg side for a well-constructed 79, during the course of which he'd played with immeasurable patience.
New Zealand would be a tad disappointed at their lines and lengths in the first hour after lunch. Sri Lanka were helped partly by Boult's inability to find his rhythm. In searching for late swing, he was either too full or too wide. Once this plan didn't work, he went short, and saw both batsmen use their experience to play neatly off their hips.
Mathews, the only Sri Lankan batsman to make a century in their lone tour game, used his experience and just a half-press to negate this line of attack to bring up his half-century. As he grew in confidence, he took on the short ball and played it nicely all along the ground for most parts.
This partnership wouldn't have swelled to the score it did had Karunaratne not been reprieved by Colin de Grandhomme in the 20th over, when he flicked a delicious full toss to midwicket. As he tucked the bat under his armpits and started to walk off, he heard two magic words from the umpire: 'stay there.' Stay he did, and made New Zealand pay for a better part of the second session. Instead of the scorecard reading 56 for 4, New Zealand were frustrated by a defiant century stand.
Karunaratne's dismissal then brought out an edgy Dinesh Chandimal, who was put through a short-ball examination just before tea by Wagner and Southee. He just about survived, only to come back after the break to try and hit his way out of trouble. This backfired as he holed out to deep square leg to leave Sri Lanka 167 for 5. Then it was Mathews turn to go, as he was out hooking to fine leg after successfully hitting a six towards the same region.
As the lower order came out, New Zealand appeared just a little desperate to finish the innings off, and in the process lost their lengths. They provided easy fodder for Dickwella early in his innings in trying to take him off strike. Kane Williamson's use of Ajaz Patel was in stark contrast to his methods in the UAE, where spin was introduced at the first blink of the eye. But here, all he had to do was bowl three wicketless overs.
There was nothing ordinary about their new-ball burst though. Tim Southee, left out of two Tests in the UAE to accommodate an extra spinner, showed why he's king in conditions where batsmen have no more than a split-second to cover swing and the wily angles he offers through superb use of the crease. His magnificent opening spell of 6-2-16-3 gave Sri Lanka the early shivers.
Danushka Gunathilaka brought his bat across the pad in trying to negate late inswing and was pinned plumb in front. Dhananjaya de Silva was squared up by an outswinger that he nicked to Watling, while Kusal Mendis flicked a full delivery that swung away a hint to short midwicket. At 9 for 3, Sri Lanka needed their veteran Mathews to step up, and he gave them a glimmer of hope and a lesson for the others to emulate going forward along with Karunaratne.
Toward the end of the day, the same resilience was shown in flashes by Dilrwan Perera and Rajitha, but they were eventual taken out by the old double-bluff method, wafting at a full delivery with fields set for the short-pitched stuff. Lakmal, who used his height to admirably get either behind or besides the line to play with soft hands, also added to Sri Lanka's indiscretion with the pull shot late in the day.
He wafted at a short delivery that looped high, only for Henry Nicholls to pull off a stunning catch. Not helped by the fact that he was looking upwards to track the trajectory with the helmet on his head, he sprinted back and got close to the delivery before putting out a full-length dive to pluck the catch.
All said and done, Sri Lanka would've gladly taken eight down at stumps. As they reflect on a tough day of Test cricket, they'll also realise they could've been in a much better position had they shown some gumption for a fight against the short ball.