Vettori lauds last-ditch effort
There is a small hoarding for a cement company directly above the balconies of both teams that says: "For the unbreakable partnership." With the batting faltering for a significant part of five days, three New Zealanders showed tremendous fight on the final day to try and forge partnerships to take the team to glory.
It didn't happen, and after a heroic, outstanding career-best 140 that gave Sri Lanka serious concerns on day five, a gutted Daniel Vettori was left to wonder what might have been. Vettori was obviously disappointed at the result of this Test, having once again shown the ability to get down and dirty and really scrap, but found the need to sift through the rubble and take the proverbial positive from defeat.
"The key for us was to show a bit of fight in this series and put up a performance related to our skill, and today to almost score 400 in our second innings was pleasing but it's disappointing not to have gone over the edge," he said. "If we hadn't lost Jacob Oram just before lunch then it could have been interesting."
This was Vettori's second hundred in a losing effort this year, and his fourth in total. "It definitely takes [the gloss] off because you want to celebrate a performance that leads to a win but you still take satisfaction from what you do," he said. "I'm happy with how I've performed but it's tainted with the loss."
For all the adversity, this weakened, derided team roused itself to fight back on day five. Inspired, first by a 124-run stand between Vettori and Oram, who marked a return to some sort of form with a dogged 56, and then with some help from No. 10 Iain O'Brien, New Zealand almost clawed their way back into the reckoning before tea. Ultimately, a winning target of 494, never achieved in Sri Lanka, duly proved way out of reach and they fell 96 runs short.
"We could've put a lot of pressure on them, particularly when Murali was injured," Vettori said. "Facing the other bowlers we could've kept batting and batting and shown a bit of patience. Then our natural aggression would have gotten us up with the scoring rate. Funny things happen when you put another team under pressure but unfortunately to lose that wicket [Oram] put us away from our fightback."
After a series in which few have put their hand up, O'Brien's captain was very pleased. O'Brien was believed to be the man to be axed for this Test. After five days, his role cannot be underestimated. He bowled with discipline and as much pace as he could muster on this unresponsive track. He stuck to a plan. He took a crucial tumbling catch soon after lunch on day two to cue a collapse that allowed New Zealand keep Sri Lanka to 416 when 500 seemed likely. He dismissed Mahela Jayawardene in the nineties twice to curb the damage. And today, against immense pressure, he batted 75 deliveries, 78 minutes and helped Vettori add 69. His determination was a lesson to New Zealand's top order and Brendon McCullum.
"One of our strengths has been that the tail has battled pretty hard. O'Brien has come from a guy who probably couldn't hold a bat to really working hard and getting results. It's great fun seeing a guy work that hard, because you want him to get some performances on the board. Batting with him, we could get singles and formed a partnership. That's the ultimate compliment you can pay a No. 10."
New Zealand's batting struggles at the top may prompt calls for a few changes. One theory is a promotion for Vettori, who seemingly bats too low at No. 8, but for now that will have to remain a theory. "It's a tough one because Jacob Oram bats ahead of me and he's got five Test hundreds, averages 36 with the bat, he has a proven record, so if I went up it would only put pressure on the players behind me," Vettori said. "Plus I've got the burden of bowling a lot of overs and captaining. I'm sure it will be a question asked a lot, but I'm comfortable where I am at. It's working, so why change it?"
Vettori admitted the frailty at the top was a major concern but backed the players. "They've got an immense amount of talent but we have to turn that talent into scores. We're not doing that at the moment. We've been given examples of how to do that, how to just bat and bat and make the bowlers come to you but we've been guilty of being aggressive and trying to take it to the bowlers of their class. We have to be patient."
For the moment, the overused cliché that a team can take positives out of a loss has some legitimacy.
Jamie Alter is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo