New Zealand fall short on promise
By the end of a bewildering day's play, the quandaries for New Zealand were plain for all to see. Looking back at the hour after lunch, when - aided by an imploding tail - they took five wickets for 27 runs and kept the total to 416 when 500 seemed a certainty, it was frustrating to see them slip at the top and lose two wickets in the last half hour to leave Ross Taylor high and dry.
New Zealand began confidently, with Iain O'Brien denying Mahela Jayawardene a seemingly inevitable century in a good first spell. But that confidence was splintered by Thilan Samaraweera's attack after being stuck on 99 for what seemed an eternity, and the breezy 72-run stand he shared with comeback kid Chamara Kapugedera. Prior to the day's play, Daniel Vettori had spoken about getting past Jayawardene and Samaraweera and into the middle order. O'Brien provided that in a spell of quick bowling on an unresponsive track, but New Zealand failed to put pressure on Kapugedera, who enjoyed a life on 9, and eased his way to 35 in that decisive fifth-wicket partnership before miscuing to mid-off four minutes before lunch.
Yet again, New Zealand came back hard only to falter. Chris Martin delivered a breakthrough early in the session and Jeetan Patel, who, until dismissing Kapugedera, didn't look like taking a wicket all Test, picked up three self-assessed "cheapies, as they're called" to run down the tail. It was just the lift New Zealand needed. "It was a bad morning session and a good afternoon session," said Patel, "and it shows that if we stick to our task we can do well."
But once New Zealand slipped to 49 for 2, and later 63 for 3 when Martin Guptill fell to the short-ball trap, pulling out to deep square leg, New Zealand's tempo was irretrievably altered. Messrs McIntosh, Flynn and Guptill - sounds like a law firm, though one charged with malpractice - may not have a better chance than this tour to prove they have the wherewithal to play Test cricket but again they failed, putting all the pressure on Taylor and Jesse Ryder. Muttiah Muralitharan and Rangana Herath struck before stumps, and there were flashes of 1998 again, when New Zealand fought back and seemed to have earned themselves a shot at glory, only to be spun out cheaply.
Taylor, lucky to still be batting, thanks to another poor judgment call from Daryl Harper, has responded positively but now must try and avert a crisis. He played Murali and Herath confidently, using the sweep shot to good effect and playing soundly off the back foot. Trying to go top of Murali is not an easy feat and requires plenty of positivism and practice, yet Taylor showed glimpses of being able to do so. He should have been an example to his batting team-mates, especially after Daniel Vettori called on New Zealand's batsmen to take a leaf from Jayawardene and Samaraweera yesterday.
Up against the odds all tour and battling to square the series at Sri Lanka's fortress, the SSC, there is perhaps no disgrace in an inexperienced New Zealand wavering at this stage. But that doesn't deter from making it thoroughly disappointing. It was an inadequate end to what promised, refreshingly, to be a day on which New Zealand broke even.
Jamie Alter is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo