NZ ready to pounce on visitors in transition
December 10-14, 2015
Start time 1030 local (2130 GMT)
What's Sri Lankan cricket without a little upheaval? Until the team landed in New Zealand, it had almost been a boring year. The usual board v players contract dispute failed to materialise in March. There have been no heated public exchanges involving administrators. Even the annual resignation of the head coach went off remarkably smoothly. Angelo Mathews had seemingly imparted some level-headed sense into the system. But really, is there any use Angelo? Chaos is Sri Lankan cricket's default setting. To chaos it will always return.
Now, ahead of an important tour, Sri Lanka are without their player of the year in Dhammika Prasad, and have been deprived of Kusal Perera, who kept wicket and brought balance to the XI. The repercussions of each absence are far-reaching. Dinesh Chandimal - of whom much was already expected with the bat - will also take up the wicketkeeping responsibilities. And the seam attack lacks a charismatic leader. With Dushmantha Chameera or Vishwa Fernando almost certain to play, the bowling appears nearly as inexperienced as the batting.
New Zealand, meanwhile, have returned from Australia defeated but not deflated. There is, of course, a sense that the series could have been drawn if not for umpiring errors, but beyond that, the attack appears to be gathering momentum ahead of the home summer. Trent Boult, Tim Southee and company scythed through Sri Lanka's top order last year. This time, the visiting opposition is without their greatest ever Test batsman, and is tending young, fragile careers.
Maybe Australia did puncture holes in Brendon McCullum's aggressive manifesto, but are any Sri Lanka batsmen capable of attacking New Zealand in the way that David Warner did? The visitors appear to be focusing on a far more conservative approach, perhaps in light of tougher pitches across the Tasman.
Expect a lot of New Zealand slips in this Test, and maybe a few single-figure Sri Lankan scores as well. The series is far from a foregone conclusion though. The thing about chaos is that, sometimes, it can work in manic and miraculous ways.
New Zealand: LDLWL (last five completed matches, most recent first)
Sri Lanka: WWLLW
In the spotlight
Having led New Zealand to one of their best-ever Test years in 2014, Brendon McCullum has experienced a relative lull with the bat this year. In 11 Test innings so far, he has crossed fifty only twice. Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor have scored heavily to offset the absence of his runs, but at home now, and with a friendlier attack bowling to him, conditions seem good for a McCullum resurgence.
Charged with managing a young side, there is also pressure on Angelo Mathews to ensure his own performances stay vibrant and strong. His team will look to him for stability in the middle order, but with Prasad out of the series, Mathews' bowling will be required as well. He has hit three hundreds this year - but all have come in losing causes. If Sri Lanka are to spring a surprise in New Zealand, Mathews may have to do even more than he is already doing.
Kaushal Silva only flies into Dunedin on Wednesday, so he is unlikely to play, according to Mathews. Opener Udara Jayasundera will debut, after hitting a fifty in the warm-up match. Quick Dushmantha Chameera's four wickets in that game will likely see him enter the XI as well. Dinesh Chandimal will take the gloves in Kusal Perera's absence, but Mathews said Chandimal would continue batting at no. 4.
Sri Lanka (probable): 1 Dimuth Karunaratne, 2 Udara Jayasundera, 3 Kithuruwan Vithanage, 4 Dinesh Chandimal (wk), 5 Angelo Mathews (capt.), 6 Kusal Mendis, 7 Milinda Siriwardana, 8 Rangana Herath, 9 Dushmantha Chameera, 10 Suranga Lakmal, 11 Nuwan Pradeep
New Zealand's batting is settled, but they have one decision to make with their attack. Brendon McCullum said one of either Mark Craig or Neil Wagner would miss out. That decision is unlikely to be made until further assessment of the track, on Thursday morning.
New Zealand (probable): 1 Martin Guptill, 2 Tom Latham, 3 Kane Williamson, 4 Ross Taylor, 5 Brendon McCullum (capt.), 6 Mitchell Santner, 7 BJ Watling (wk), 8 Doug Bracewell, 9 Mark Craig/ Neil Wagner, 10 Tim Southee, 11 Trent Boult
Pitch and conditions
The pitch has a thick green covering on the eve of the match, and as such, will probably be conducive to seam movement on the first two days. There is rain expected over the weekend, but that forecast is constantly changing. Sri Lanka are unlikely to enjoy the temperature, which is forecast to remain in the high teens and low twenties for the duration of the game.
Stats and trivia
- New Zealand have won five of their last six Tests at home, and are unbeaten in the country since March 2012.
- Four of the six Tests played at University Oval have been draws - most of those rain-affected.
- Rangana Herath requires seven wickets to become the second left-arm spinner to 300 Test scalps, after Daniel Vettori.
- 2015 has been Kane Williamson's best year yet by a distance. He averages 90.40 after 12 innings so far. Sri Lanka are also his favourite opponent. He has struck 559 runs at 93.16 against them - thanks in large part to the career-high 242* at the Basin Reserve in January.
"Looking back over the last couple of years, the emergence and development of this team is something that we - as leaders within the group - can be pretty proud of. We're by no means the finished product and we'll have a few challenges over the next little while. But overall we're starting to shape into a very good cricket team. The profile of this cricket team has picked up recently too."
Brendon McCullum on New Zealand's rise
"Our premier fast-bowler in Dhammika, has taken a lot of wickets in the recent past, and we're going to miss him so bad. Kusal's news was shocking as well, to be honest."
Angelo Mathews on Sri Lanka's two withdrawn players
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando