NZ's wolf pack lick lips at SL's rough diamonds
Brendon McCullum will not say it, but his team are wolves at home. His quicks do not blow their own horns, but on seaming decks, they make the ball sing. In the outfield, New Zealand whizz about like pinballs. In the slips, flesh-and-bone bends and flexes like elastic.
There will be talk of weakness now, after a series just lost, but do not believe it. New Zealand's XI may seem a little imbalanced with two allrounders injured. Do not buy it. It has been three full summers since New Zealand lost a Test at home. Eleven games since an opposition has broken them here.
Angelo Mathews and company have arrived in New Zealand for the second consecutive summer, a little wiser maybe for last year's beating, yet seemingly not much better-equipped. Sri Lanka have already lost the leader of their seam attack to injury. The top order they have brought is as green as the pitches they will play on. If modest returns from their tour match are any indication, Sri Lanka seem like a kid still queasy from his last theme park ride. It is already time to buckle up again. The next few weeks could be rough.
There is potential, as ever, in this Sri Lanka squad, but are there too many rough diamonds that need shining? Milinda Siriwardana's career has sprouted nicely in Kandy and Colombo, but will it take root in unfamiliar climes? Other unknowns include Kithuruwan Vithanage, who appears set to take up the No.3 batting position. He made runs against New Zealand A in October, but in his most recent Test in July, was bowled playing a shot that would have made Chris Martin wince. If any of the batsmen are injured or out of form, the man waiting to replace them is 20-year-old Kusal Mendis - the selectors' pet project - who has only one first-class ton, and 11 senior games behind him.
There is an inexperienced tearaway quick too, keen to leave a few welts and snap a few stumps. Someone should tell Dushmantha Chameera though, if he does not know already, that there is hardly a better place for a Sri Lanka seamer to make his mark. The island's two best fast bowlers had breakthrough performances in this corner of the world; Chaminda Vaas on a glorious 1995 tour, Lasith Malinga in a 2005 Napier Test. Encouragingly, Chameera emerged from the tour game with credit. Disappointingly for Sri Lanka, he was the only bowler to do so.
There is the hope, often repeated by fans during this lull, that Sri Lankan cricket never stays low for long. There was Sanga and Mahela after Arjuna and Aravinda, wasn't there? And Herath after Murali? Dilshan to follow Sanath? Mathews now needs a team-mate or two to join him on the route to greatness. In Dinesh Chandimal, there have brief been glimpses of the extraordinary. Dimuth Karunaratne has trod a more gradual incline. It is on these three batsmen that Sri Lanka's innings will pivot. No one else in the top seven has played a Test in New Zealand. No one else quite knows what it's like to face Tim Southee with a slip cordon that seems to stretch to the horizon. Or to have Trent Boult bring his away-swinger closer and closer to the stumps each ball, like the tide washing in towards a sandcastle.
The hosts have an opener and an offspinner out of form, but at home, where the ball moves around, they may confidently return to the hyper-aggressive strain of cricket they love to play. They have the attack to trouble Sri Lanka, of course, but their middle order will daunt the opposition almost as much. Kane Williamson continues to make big contributions, wherever he plays. Ross Taylor and McCullum are more tightly tethered to the vagaries of form, but have established a pattern of peaking in alternation. When one is riding a rough patch, the other finds big runs.
There is no rich rivalry between Sri Lanka and New Zealand. It is their big neighbours each team would rather beat. They have often been evenly matched before, but this time, it's different. This time, Sri Lanka will have to spring a surprise.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando