New Zealand target Sangakkara and Dilshan
Tillakaratne Dilshan and Kumar Sangakkara are the most serious obstacles on New Zealand's path to an elusive series win in Sri Lanka, allrounder James Neesham has said ahead of their third ODI in Dambulla. The visitors have not won an ODI trophy in Sri Lanka since their triumph in a tri-series involving Pakistan in 2003, but following Tuesday's thrilling victory, a depleted team is now one win away from securing the series 2-0.
Sangakkara and Dilshan are the most prolific ODI partnership in the past two years, and are also first and third respectively on the individual run chart for the same period. They have cumulatively made 286 runs in the series so far, 263 of them together, where New Zealand have been the most vulnerable in the match.
"We've been concentrating on Dilshan and Sangakkara at the top of the order," Neesham said. "They've batted well and we spent a bit of time at training yesterday formulating plans on how to bowl to them and perfecting what we've been doing already. Hopefully that will work for us in the next game. They are quality players all around the world, and it's a challenge for our bowlers to come up against them. They've had the better of us in the first two games."
New Zealand's batting has appeared their stronger suit on tour, as evidenced by the successful chase of 198 from 23 overs in Hambantota, and while the team has gained confidence from that victory, the batting unit has been among the runs for some time. Prior to arriving in Sri Lanka, New Zealand hit 307 in the third ODI against Bangladesh in Fatullah, before making 204 in a T20 match.
"I think the confidence and the belief in the team has been there for a while," Neesham said. "Even in Bangladesh we knew we were playing decent cricket, and we knew the results would turn around eventually, so it's nice to get on the right side of the ledger."
Though the trip to the subcontinent has been largely disappointing for New Zealand, who drew the Tests and lost all three ODIs against Bangladesh, acting captain Kyle Mills said individual performances from emerging players had been a heartening byproduct of the tour. Allrounders Neesham, Corey Anderson and batsman Colin Munro had impressed in Bangladesh, before 21-year-old Tom Latham hit a vital 86 from 68 in the win against Sri Lanka on Tuesday.
"A number of young players are putting their hands up going back to Bangladesh, as well," Mills said. "Some of these guys, six months ago, probably wouldn't have been in the New Zealand side, but they have played some exceptional cricket. What it does is build depth within the group and forces people to really challenge for spots. In the long run it's going to bode well for New Zealand cricket."
New Zealand had not been expected to leave Sri Lanka with an ODI series win, particularly given the absence of three key batsmen. Their victory in Hambantota has also foiled Sri Lanka's plan to use this series to blood young players of their own, and they instead pursue a face-saving win in Dambulla.
"It would be sensational to get a series win," Neesham said. "The boys have been under the pump since the Bangladesh series. Getting a win at the end of that tour gave us a bit of confidence coming into this one. We haven't won a game in Sri Lanka for a long time before the last one, so winning a series will be massive for us."
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here