Reckless Sri Lanka speed their way to doom
Imagine you are driving someplace. You are a little late. You know you probably shouldn't speed, but it's too tempting. As you press down on the accelerator, though, you pass a car that has just hit a tree. The bonnet is dented in. Brake fluid squirts in a comical parabola into some bushes. You speed on.
You soon come across another car wreck. This one has also hit a tree. The damage is even worse. There is detritus all over the tarmac. There is a seat near the middle divider. A blinking indicator light is somehow lodged in the tree's canopy. Heedlessly, you speed on.
Then another crash site, at yet another tree. This is the worst of the lot. A door has flown clean across the road. A tyre that was thrown upwards on impact is still high in the air, blotting out the sun. And the driver is doing laps around his ruined vehicle, screaming, because his pants are on fire. And you - you absolute idiot - you speed on.
The next tree, of course, has your car's name all over it. You drive into it. It is spectacular. The comical parabola of your brake fluid stretches all the way across the road, forming a sort of rainbow arch. Your tyre has basically gone into orbit. And you find yourself doing laps around the remains of your car, arms waving high in the air, pants, obviously, way on fire.
That is what Sri Lanka's innings was like today. It is one thing to collapse as dramatically as they did, losing all 10 batsmen for 62 runs, inside 14 overs. What makes this collapse special is that they all fell as a result of the short-ball plan. How rare is that? It is like a cricketing Halley's comet. It may not happen again for many decades. In a way, we should count ourselves fortunate to be alive at the point of history in which this occurred.
The slide began with Dimuth Karunaratne and Udara Jayasundera, and to be fair, both got genuinely good deliveries. Jayasundera may in fact have been the victim of a poor DRS decision. Importantly, neither of these batsmen played aggressive shots to get out. This kind of self-restraint basically makes them hermits in comparison to the rest of their team, and what was to come.
Dinesh Chandimal picked out leg gully with a glance off the hips soon after. Kusal Mendis found fine leg with an over-the-head hook after lunch. Angelo Mathews was caught behind off the glove, also hooking. But the warning sirens went unheeded by the middle order. Basic sense seemed to elude them. At one point, it seemed like New Zealand could have started bowling underarm, and Sri Lanka would have still found ways to get out hooking.
The dismissals became more and more bizarre. Milinda Siriwardana had been peppered with bouncers, but it was a waist-high ball outside off stump that he managed to send down the throat of deep midwicket. This is like willfully seeking out a tree to crash your car into.
Not long after, Kithuruwan Vithanage hooked a Neil Wagner bouncer into the bleachers, then next ball, when he got another short delivery outside off stump, carved it straight to third man, who was the only fielder on the off-side boundary. This is like swerving around the tree, and then driving clean off a cliff.
Sri Lanka seemed to want to collect every possible dismissal to the short ball. Gloved to the keeper? Check. Sent sailing to the slips? Check. Caught at each of the deep leg-side positions? Check. Out at leg gully? Check. There was even a run-out after a short ball to complete the set. It seemed like manic self-destruction at the time, but when you go over it now, it is meticulously thorough. No stone had been left unturned.
"We wanted to bat three sessions - for someone to hang around and leave the bouncers a little bit," bowling coach Champaka Ramanayake later said. "Throughout, the short ball was the key to get wickets. The message from the head coach was to knuckle down I think. When they went to the middle, they didn't do the right thing. Sure, we've lost great batsmen, but these batsmen have played a reasonable amount of cricket. Some of them have played over 20 Test matches. There are no excuses."
It seems such a shame, because Sri Lanka's bowlers had delivered them a rare opportunity for an overseas win. They had had a first-innings lead of 55. The openers put on Sri Lanka's best first-wicket stand of the year, making 71. Only 150 more runs from there, and New Zealand would have been under pressure in the fourth innings. Instead, Sri Lanka are left hanging delicately in the closing stages of the Test, with the opposition's best batsman still at the crease.
If there is room for one more analogy (and why not on a day like this?), Sri Lanka were like the politician leading comfortably in the polls, until in the week before elections, he gets on stage at a rally and moons everybody.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando