Sri Lanka v New Zealand, 1st Test, Galle August 17, 2009

Murali closes in on another record

Muttiah Muralitharan is only four wickets away from 100 Test scalps in Galle, the third venue where he would have achieved such a landmark

New Zealand start the two-Test series in Sri Lanka as clear underdogs, not only because of the hosts' awesome record at home, but also as a result of their own recent struggles in Test cricket. In their last 20 Tests against opposition other than Zimbabwe and Bangladesh - a period spanning more than three years - New Zealand have won only two matches, against Sri Lanka in Christchurch in 2006, and England in Hamilton last year. Their overseas record against the top eight Test teams is even worse - since 2000, they've only won one Test out of 28, against West Indies in Bridgetown in 2002. During this period they've lost 16 matches.

New Zealand have an overall advantage in their head-to-head record against Sri Lanka - nine wins and five losses - but four of those victories came in the 1980s, when Sri Lanka were still finding their way in international cricket. Since then, both teams have won five matches each, but New Zealand have won only one out of seven in Sri Lanka since 1990.

Tests between Sri Lanka and New Zealand
  Played SL won NZ won Drawn
Overall 24 5 9 10
In Sri Lanka 11 3 3 5
In Sri Lanka since 1990 7 3 1 3

The last time New Zealand toured Sri Lanka for a Test series, they managed to draw both games, thanks largely to some spirited batting by their top order. Their captain led the way - Stephen Fleming scored 376 runs in four innings, including a career-best 274. He received outstanding support from Mark Richardson, who scored half-centuries in each of the three innings in which he was dismissed. He averaged 67 at a strike-rate of 34, which means he batted almost 200 deliveries per dismissal.

Overall, the team batted at least 95 overs in each of the innings in which they were bowled out, a feat they'll have to repeat if they're hoping to achieve similar results. In two Tests the top seven scored one century and six half-centuries, exactly as many as Sri Lanka managed (though the Sri Lankans batted fewer innings).

Top-order batting (Nos.1 to 7) on New Zealand's last tour of Sri Lanka
Team Innings Runs Average Strike rate 100s/ 50s
Sri Lanka 17 712 47.46 47.84 1/ 6
New Zealand 28 978 39.12 39.15 1/ 6

New Zealand will also have to overcome their lack of experience in Sri Lankan conditions. Only three players - Daniel Vettori, Jacob Oram and Daryl Tuffey - have played Tests in that country.

Vettori has played there the most, and he has an excellent record against, and in, Sri Lanka: in nine Tests against them, he has taken 41 wickets at an average of less than 22 and a strike-rate of less than 50, both significantly better than his career numbers.

Vettori v Sri Lanka and against all teams
Against Tests Wickets Average Strike rate 5WI/ 10WM
Sri Lanka 9 41 21.46 49.5 3/ 1
Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka 5 20 23.30 59.4 1/ 0
Career 92 293 33.55 76.4 18/ 3

In matches since 2003, Kumar Sangakkara has played Vettori much better than his team-mates, which isn't surprising considering Vettori's stock ball spins in to him. Vettori has tied up Mahela Jayawardene quite superbly, though, conceding less than 1.5 runs per over to him.

Vettori v Sri Lankan batsmen, since 2003
Batsman Runs Balls Dismissals Average Runs per over
Kumar Sangakkara 62 106 0 - 3.50
Prasanna Jayawardene 32 66 1 32.00 2.90
Mahela Jayawardene 24 98 1 24.00 1.46
Chamara Kapugedera 19 40 1 19.00 2.85

Among Sri Lanka's batsmen in the current squad, Sangakkara has an excellent record against New Zealand, scoring two centuries in six Tests, in which he averaged more than 62. Jayawardene's average against them, though, is almost ten runs lower than his career average: in nine Tests he only averages 42.87.

New Zealand's fortunes in the series will depend, to a large extent, on how well they contain those two batsmen, and also on how well they tackle Muttiah Muralitharan. In 12 Tests against them, Murali's stats are identical to his overall career numbers - an average of 21, at a strike-rate of almost 55 balls per wicket. Surprisingly, his average against New Zealand is better overseas than at home (19.96 to 21.79), though he has taken more wickets in Sri Lanka.

Ground realities

In 14 Tests in Galle, Sri Lanka have won seven and lost three, one each to Pakistan, Australia and India. New Zealand have played here only once, way back in 1998, and lost by an innings and 16 runs.

Most of the Sri Lankans enjoy batting here, but one batsman does so more than most: Mahela Jayawardene has scored 1510 runs in 14 Tests, at an average of 83.88. The fact that he scored only 30 in two innings in his last Test here, against Pakistan last month, could well mean he is due for a big one this time.

The fast bowlers got a fair amount of assistance in that match, but overall, spinners have better numbers here. In 12 Tests since 2000, spinners have taken 222 wickets at an average of less than 29, while fast bowlers average more than 36. Murali is just four wickets shy of 100 wickets at this ground. He already has 160 at the SSC and 117 in Kandy; no other bowler has achieved a century of Test wickets at a single venue.

Pace and spin in Galle since 2000
  Tests Wickets Average Strike rate 5WI/ 10WM
Pace 12 140 36.62 75.3 2/ 0
Spin 12 222 28.91 66.7 15/ 7

S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo