Colombo win just a start for New Zealand
With the fall of each wicket in the fourth innings in Colombo, New Zealand's celebrations became increasingly animated. Their bowlers had become their spring of confidence in the series, and as New Zealand's belligerence with the bat in the third innings and Ross Taylor's declaration showed, belief had spread quickly to all aspects of their game just a week after their most tentative performance of the year. As each chance was pocketed, enthusiasm turned to effervescence; grunts of contentment became squeals of delight. New Zealand had not had a meaningful Test victory in almost a year, and they were striding closer to completing a remarkable comeback.
Though they had been worn down by five straight Test losses and a winless tour until Thursday evening, the victory at the P Sara and their subsequent celebrations will be New Zealand's enduring memories of the tour, and that will likely equip the team with further resolve for the months to come. But while they must wring this win for every drop of feel-good it can provide them, they cannot forget their failures. In Galle, New Zealand were awful on a track conducive to turn from day one - which the P Sara surface was decidedly not. They had been similarly incapable of resisting the wiles of Pragyan Ojha and R Ashwin on turning tracks in India, in August.
Two New Zealand batsmen struck upon the appropriate tempo and summoned the technique to keep Rangana Herath out for large periods in Colombo, but unless they wish to go another three years until their next 200-run stand against a top-eight side, they must endeavour to assess the pitch and the bowling more consistently, and work out a steady method that will breed long-term success. Among their top six, only Taylor, Kane Williamson and Martin Guptill have made hundreds since January 2011, with Guptill's lone ton having come against Zimbabwe.
There are issues with team composition that remain unresolved as well, beginning with Brendon McCullum's position in the batting order. His technique and temperament appear to suit the role of a No. 6 far better than a top-order batsman despite the initial success he had as an opener, but a return of just seven fifties from 29 innings in the last two years has not sparked a change of heart. Lately, he has also arrived at first drop, and even in this age of hyper-aggressive batsmanship, No. 3 has been a position that has continued to reward the more measured approach of a Sangakkara, Amla, Trott or Dravid.
The bowling appears to have fewer dilemmas, but for all their promise, New Zealand's young pacemen have not yet proved themselves consistent. Tim Southee's dramatic outswing will earn him reams of Test match victims, but only if he can sustain that skill in the years to come. He has always been capable of moving the ball, yet as recently as three months ago, he was s sporadic starter in the Test side. Southee said in Sri Lanka that the ball was "coming out nicely at the moment", but if New Zealand are to compete in their upcoming tour of South Africa and beyond, they will need him to weld permanence to that form - something he has not done so far in his career.
Upon arrival in New Zealand, Taylor stressed the importance of staying grounded despite the catharsis in their win. Despite the joy in the New Zealand camp and the disappointment in the Sri Lanka side, this was a drawn Test series, and the visitors seem not to have lost sight of that.
"It was nice to win and for our hard-work to pay off," Taylor said. "There's still a long way to go until we get to where we want to be as a team, and we look forward to that in the months to come. We need to keep working hard, keep believing and keep persevering with personnel. It has been a hard twelve months, but this is a start and players are starting to get confidence."
From an operational perspective, it also appears vital that New Zealand give themselves at least one warm-up match to adjust to conditions when they tour overseas. They dived straight into a Test series in both their most recent tours, and on each occasion, they had only begun to come to grips with foreign conditions in the second match, in which they performed much more creditably than the first. Taylor and McCullum were positive that the lack of a warm-up match had not hurt them in Galle, and that in the era of brimming itineraries, players can adapt without a tour match. But not only is that argument inconsistent with their recent results, it also defies common sense. Happily they will play a three-day match before their Tests against South Africa that begin in just over a month.
The victory at the P Sara brought relief, but New Zealand cannot afford to squander the confidence that win has afforded them. Their last big win was in Hobart, but in between, they endured their worst losing streak in 67 years. New Zealand are making the right noises about Colombo being only the start, but consistency must define them if they are to achieve real progress.
Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent