Astle sees New Zealand home
Stuttering, stumbling, bumbling, New Zealand eventually managed to find a way home, beating Sri Lanka by five wickets at Eden Park to ensure that the two match Twenty20 series was shared one-all. After James Franklin and a menacing all-pace New Zealand attack had bundled out Sri Lanka for 115, New Zealand squandered a flying start, losing their way, before the experience of Nathan Astle eventually guided them home with nine balls to spare.
It should never have even gotten that sweaty, especially after Franklin had sashayed his way through the top order as Sri Lanka were put into bat by Stephen Fleming. From the very first ball of the match, he was at it, a thin edge from Upul Tharanga unnoticed by everyone, apart from technology. Not that it mattered for two balls later, he was bowled. That set a pattern for the rot that followed.
It helped that the surface had both pace and bounce, lifelong enemies of subcontinent teams, but arguably the zest with which New Zealand's grey shirts (a tribute to their 1992 World Cup innovators) bowled and fielded helped even more. Chamara Kapugedera tonked an impressive six over long-on in Franklin's second over but Mahela Jayawardene fell in the same over.
Kapugedera went himself next, slicing Michael Mason to third man, where Franklin - who seemed to be everywhere all at once at that stage - made a difficult chance look easy. Kumar Sangakkara, in regal touch all tour, briefly fought, hoicking and then flicking consecutive boundaries through leg in the sixth over.
As it turned out, those were the last boundaries for nearly seven overs, a veritable lifetime. Batsmen, meant to be lords of this format, were reduced to paupers. They fed off stolen, surreptitious singles and boundaries, their staple diet, all but vanished. Franklin came out of the attack, having dismissed Marvan Atapattu only for Mark Gillespie and Andre Adams to take over.
Gillespie charged, a quicker, less stocky Mick Lewis - touching 140kmph and getting bounce, he was altogether more threatening. Adams was skiddier, a mutant version of Imran Khan's action, but both picked up wickets during the middle overs and choked runs. At that stage the only bad news for New Zealand was Gillespie limping off with a knee injury in his last over.
Nathan Astle replaced Gillespie, a change that allowed Lasith Malinga and Dilhara Fernando a worthy tailend punt. Malinga hoisted a massive six over midwicket off Astle. Almost like a top-order batsman, he dabbed him through point for four before lifting him for another six over long-on. Fernando played the wonky sidekick, inside edging and outside edging a couple of boundaries as a hundred was belatedly brought up. Two more conventional boundaries arrived, but they were merely a last, meek hurrah, Malinga falling to Jeetan Patel's off-spin with ten balls still left to go.
As often happens in these type of games, the pitch took on a different hue when the other side bowled. Sri Lanka were missing thousands of wickets' experience in Muttiah Muralitharan, Chaminda Vaas and Sanath Jayasuriya (all rested) and it showed.
A worse Boxing Day was difficult to imagine for Ruchira Perera, smashed liberally to all parts of the ground as New Zealand began in a hurry. Brendon McCullum, in particular, recreated his hustling, bustling, all-action persona from the first game. Perera's action looked rickety but his bowling was even worse, McCullum and Fleming taking six boundaries from his first two overs.
As he was taken off, Sri Lanka briefly recovered. For as long as there is limited overs cricket - of ten, twenty or fifty overs - there will remain the Sri Lankan spinners' mid-innings choke and Tillekeratne Dilshan and Malinga Bandara did it here. Boundaries momentarily dried up, singles evaporated and two run-outs in one Dilshan over pegged New Zealand back. At 65 for three, Sri Lanka squeaked.
But Astle simply played smart. Content to pick up singles and doubles where he could, he bided his time, waiting for the pacers, especially Perera, to return. When he did, in the 16th over, Astle immediately drove him over extra cover for four. And in his next over, he pulled him first for four through long-on before lifting him for a giant six over long-on: 15 from the over and the deal, with a little negotiating, was sealed.
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo