New Zealand v Sri Lanka, 1st Test, Dunedin, 3rd day December 12, 2015

Herath's Saturday of little struggles

A day that began with a gritty batting display turned into a rare off day with the ball for Rangana Herath

New Zealand peppered Rangana Herath with short balls but he hung in grimly for 74 balls © AFP

Five overs before lunch, Rangana Herath, swaddled in wool, rib protector defining a little outline through all the layers, ducked into a Tim Southee bouncer that hadn't climbed as it should have. Southee and the New Zealand fielders wore concerned looks. A few put caring hands on Herath's back. Then, once the ringing from the blow on the back of the helmet had subsided, the hurling of balls at Herath's head resumed.

Hours later, standing at mid-on, another ball came Herath's way. This one was off Martin Guptill's leading edge and was dying through the air. You could almost hear a clunk as Herath's leaden legs pushed off. He didn't so much attack the ball as wade through molasses in its direction. Even a top fielder would have struggled to get to the ball, but they might just have done better than go into orbit around it, which is what Herath almost did. He ran a circular route, then trod over to the bowler with a half-apology.

Not long after that, Herath was at the top of his mark, ball flitting between his hands. Martin Guptill slid back in his crease to crack the last ball of the over through point. Next over he slinked out on two occasions, first fetching a four over mid on, then a handsome straight six.

Herath's whole Saturday was made up of these little struggles. With bat, ball and in the field, he found himself in pressure situations - the team looking to him for something special, as they often do when the opposition becomes so dominant.

The batting was the part he handled best. Herath survived for 74 deliveries, taking crucial time out of the match, with rain expected on day four. He shelved his slap-happy disposition, along with half of his shots, which is to say two of them. The reverse-wallop and sweep were not on show. The pull and drive brought him most of his 15 runs. New Zealand's seamers tried taking out his stumps at first, sending swinging balls full and straight, but soon put two men behind square and a third catcher on the leg side, to test him with the short ball.

"He was playing so well on the front foot we had to try something different," Southee said. "We went with the short ball for a few overs. It's never nice when you hit someone, but it's nice to know he got through it all right and carried on batting."

He provided some stability with the bat, but the blows to Herath's bowling sent Sri Lanka way off kilter. Even at the southernmost venue in the world, even on a green pitch, he is the linchpin of an even greener attack. Angelo Mathews relies on him in all situations, whether oppositions need to be reined in or ripped through. Today, they needed both, but Herath could barely provide one. His ball to get Guptill pitched on a good length, then shot towards middle stump, never rising more than two inches off the ground. Was it a new-fangled variation? Probably not. That wicket gave Sri Lanka a little respite, but the rest of Herath's deliveries did not. He sent down eight overs, at an economy rate of 4.87. So rattled were Sri Lanka by this that they used seven bowlers to get through their 48 overs. New Zealand, in 117.1 overs in the field, had used one fewer.

"He's a great bowler, but these pitches are suited to seamers," was Dinesh Chandimal's assessment. "Unfortunately they batted really well against him."

That Herath has been Sri Lanka's most consistent match-winner since Muttiah Muralitharan has rarely been in doubt, but in this game so far he has been like the leopard taking shelter from the monsoon. It is the drier Hamilton surface that excites him, and on which he thinks he might successfully hunt. Many others in the team seem to agree.

If the rains materialise on Sunday, Sri Lanka have a chance of going to that Test on level terms. New Zealand are on 308 now, and Herath is the visitors' best hope of delaying a declaration. Even if he can't take wickets, Sri Lanka will hope he can lock up one end, and sharpen the menace of the man bowling from the other end. It is a lot to ask of a bowler, to be both spearhead and workhorse, but Herath has been doing both for so long it is jarring when he has an off day. They might need a little more of his grit with the bat as well.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando