Sri Lanka's delightfully drab day
In August this year, Sri Lanka lost half their side for less than 110 in five of their six Test innings against India. In the previous series, against Pakistan, Yasir Shah and company had spun out, reverse-swung, and metaphorically undressed them. Sri Lanka batted a little better against a modest West Indies side [see current score of Hobart Test] in October, but even in that series lost 6 for 29 to Kraigg Brathwaite, who had had three first-class scalps until then. Sri Lanka have, in short, been caliphs of the collapse in 2015.
But now, on a difficult tour, with a No. 3 on debut and an opener in his second match, they have survived until the second new ball. Sri Lanka may still give up a large first-innings lead. They haven't yet avoided the follow-on. But after the 12 months this top order has had, their mere competence on day two was cause for celebration. On a deck still dancing for a good seam attack, 197 for 4 was gloriously, resplendently - even triumphantly - adequate.
New Zealand had sped at over four-and-a-half runs an over on the first day, but Sri Lanka progressed at mellower pace. There is another reason to rejoice. Given the number of occasions their batsmen have been out playing attacking shots recently, their stonewalling was almost heroic. They hit no more than 20 from the first 10 overs, and sure, they also lost a wicket in that period, but to be mired in such minutiae is to miss the point. They were a little rubbish, beaten wafting on several occasions, but the thing is, they weren't nearly as bad as they are capable of being. In a season in which so many uncontrolled shots have carried directly to the slips, the fact that Dimuth Karunaratne's inadvertent edge in the second over carried well over the cordon was the kind of progress that should bring a tear to the eye.
After so many spiralling-inferno innings, each Sri Lanka defensive shot now took on a scintillating aspect. The leaves, of which there were many, were all sublime in their passivity. The forward-defensives - so sure, so secure - were marvelously unambitious. For about a session and a half, Sri Lanka played dazzlingly morose cricket, progressing until the 36th over at a run rate of 1.83. A sparse Dunedin crowd was coaxed gently to sleep, but 10,000 kilometres away, in Galle, Kandy and Colombo, fans rising to their day will have been thrilled to the core by the scoreline.
Restraint was particularly impressive from the two batsmen who combined to provide the guts of Sri Lanka's total with a 122-run stand. Karunaratne had once been the opener who flashed his bat in the early overs like a rapier, before falling on his sword when a substantial score beckoned. Now, he is a man desperate to continue to the big scores. He has expanded his off-side play at home recently, unlocking previously barren areas of the field, but he pared his cricket down to basics in Dunedin. A great majority of his runs came through that naturally-favoured leg side.
"The new ball had a lot more shape, so when I started, I had wanted to get through that period," Karunaratne said. "Boult bowled some good lines, and though I'm pretty confident with my off-side drives, I thought that maybe I'd make a mistake with them. I tried to wait for their mistakes, and I wanted to get those straight balls. So when they did that I was able to hit straight and through leg. Once the ball lost its shine a little, I played a few more off-side shots."
Dinesh Chandimal, whose most memorable Test innings so far has been that strapping, reverse-slapping 169-ball 162 against India, was even more reticent for most of his stay. He took 46 balls to reach double figures, and 83 deliveries to hit his first boundary. After 116 balls, his score was still 31. Only after tea was a little of Chandimal's innate aggression seen at the University Oval. He finished the day on 83 not out, after Karunaratne had struck 84. Both innings were chanceless, apart of course from the under-edge that got Karunaratne out.
As stumps drew near, even Kithuruwan Vithanage, who had been bowled playing a ludicrous reverse-sweep in his previous Test, contributed 10 not out from 49 deliveries. The boredom he imposed on spectators was the final cherry to top a delightfully drab day. If Sri Lanka want to emerge from the opening new-ball spells unscathed on Saturday, Vithanage and Chandimal will need to commit whole-heartedly again to inaction.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando