Astle takes New Zealand home
New Zealand - held back by an elegant century from Upul Tharanga and the Christchurch rain - scrambled to a five-wicket win over Sri Lanka at the Jade Stadium, and took a 3-0 lead in the five-ODI series (one match was played in late 2004 but following the Indian Ocean tsunami the series was temporarily abandoned). Sri Lanka, put in to bat, managed 255, and New Zealand, powered by Nathan Astle, overhauled the target after a being given a serious scare towards the end of their chase.
At this venue, with its distinct lack of movement in the air or off the wicket, and short boundaries, a score of 255 should not have caused serious concern. Yet New Zealand managed to make heavy weather of the target. If it were not for a couple of expensive no-balls - Dilhara Fernando and Chaminda Vaas both had Astle dismissed off no-balls when New Zealand needed to score at more than a run-a-ball, things might well have been different.
Defending 256 was a tough ask of the men handling the white ball - Chaminda Vaas began admirably, applying the pressure at one end. But Farveez Maharoof, without the benefit of the same experience and skill as his senior partner, struggled to keep Lou Vincent quiet. Vincent opened the face of the bat and drove confidently through the line, forcing the ball through the square field on the off side with power.
The fifty of the opening partnership came up in just the eighth over, and even the fall of both openers soon after, with 71 on the board, was little cause for worry. Astle, brought into the game as SuperSub, stabilised the innings with Peter Fulton, who chipped in with a promising 32, and the rain that came down provided a twist.
While the required run rate never really ran away from New Zealand, the fall of Hamish Marshall, lbw to Muttiah Muralitharan, and Scott Styris, brilliantly caught by Tillakaratne Dilshan diving football goalkeeper style, caused a flutter or two and raised the hopes of the Lankans. In the end, though, a well set Astle - once caught off a no-ball and once bowled off a no-ball - settled the issue, scoring 90 not out and New Zealand won with 12 balls to spare. Astle was given a timely boost by Chris Cairns, who cracked a huge six off the last ball of Murali's spell, and gave the innings the momentum they needed to go over the finish line.
When Daniel Vettori, standing in for Stephen Fleming, won the toss, he had little hesitation in choosing to put Sri Lanka in. That Sanath Jayasuriya had slipped in the shower reaching for his shampoo, dislocated his shoulder and ruled himself out of the game did not help Sri Lanka.
Shane Bond bowled with genuine pace early on and hurried both Tharanga and Avishka Gunawardene through their strokes. While surviving the Bond barrage was on the top of Tharanga's mind, Gunawardene still appeared keen to score. He closed the face of his bat a touch too early on one delivery and sent an edge towards point where Hamish Marshall kept his eyes on the ball and took a sharp catch. At 24 for 1 Sri Lanka were in danger of slipping, but Kumar Sangakkara ensured this did not happen.
Sangakkara was hesitant at first, but understood the need to keep wickets in hand even if the runs were not flowing too freely. He let Tharanga take charge of the run-getting, and this worked well. When Cairns and Jacob Oram came on to bowl first change, Tharanga gave full freedom to his pleasing off-side strokeplay. The zone between backward point and wide mid off took a peppering as fielders scrambled to save the ball. Tharanga was comfortable off front and back foot, and easily found the gaps. On occasion he was even audacious enough to come down the pitch to Oram and drive inside out.
Vettori pulled things back somewhat, even as Sri Lanka's batsmen aimed to be positive against him. The Tharanga-Sangakkara partnership had burgeoned to 109 when Bond struck. Sangakkara dropped one to the leg side and set off for a quick single, but was sent back by his partner. Bond, well into his followthrough, fielded well and nailed the stumps at the keeper's end with a strong throw before Sangakkara (36) could recover his ground.
Then New Zealand pulled things back, picking up wickets at regular intervals. Marvan Atapattu was forced to seal one end up and he did so with some panache. Tharanga reached his second ODI century - a crucial one given how much of the team's score he had singlehandedly accounted for - but was dismissed soon after. He pulled Oram straight down Fulton's throat on the square-leg fence, and was dismissed for 103.
Mahela Jayawardene, Dilshan and Maharoof all failed, with Dilshan's wicket taking Cairns to 200 scalps. Had it not been for Atapattu's controlled innings at the death - he made a better than run-a-ball half-century without ever seeming to break into a sweat - Sri Lanka would have struggled even to get to their eventual 255.
Jamie How c Mubarak b Vaas 12 (59 for 1)
Top edged a slower ball towards cover
Lou Vincent c Sangakkara b Maharoof 46 (71 for 2)
Flashed at a wide one
Peter Fulton c Jayawardene b Dilshan 32 (143 for 3)
Brilliantly caught at square-leg off a full-blooded shot
Hamish Marshall lbw b Muralitharan 12 (170 for 4)
Unlucky to be adjudged lbw sweeping a ball from round the wickets
Scott Styris c Dilshan b Maharoof 28 (219 for 5)
Athletically caught at point off a powerful cut
Avishka Gunawardene c Marshall b Bond 3 (24 for 1)
Closed the face of the bat and edged to point
Kumar Sangakkara run out (Bond) 36 (133 for 2)
Sent back attempting a single and found short by a direct hit
Mahela Jayawardene C McCullum b Mills 6 (150 for 3)
Tried to cut one that was too straight
Upul Tharanga c Fulton b Oram 103 (169 for 4)
Pulled to the fielder at square-leg
Tillakaratne Dilshan c Oram b Cairns 11 (198 for 5)
Holed out off a slower ball
Farveez Maharoof b Mills 7 (217 for 7)
Missed an off-stump yorker
Marvan Atapattu run out (Astle) 52 (254 for 7)
Caught short by a direct hit from third-man
Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Cricinfo