Where has New Zealand's fight gone?
Over the years, New Zealand had endeared themselves to a legion of overseas fans with their attitude and style. Almost always the underdogs, in the past they have competed with the top teams by striking a unity of purpose that has elevated the collective beyond the sum of its parts. Bowlers would find a way to make runs where the batsmen could not, part-timers would crack partnerships and turn matches, and the team would scrap their way out of adversity - if not always to victory. No longer. The spunk has left their game. It has been gone some years now.
New Zealand's recent record does not make for pleasant reading. They arrive in Sri Lanka less encumbered by expectations as a result, with fans at home becoming increasingly disenchanted with a cricket team whose shortcomings are made all the more stark by the All Blacks' success. New Zealand have been trounced in their last two away series, and beaten soundly by South Africa at home. Their last Test series win against top-eight opposition was in early 2006. In ODIs, it has been almost three years since they have defeated a top-eight side. More recently, even their Twenty20 game seems to have slipped.
Frustratingly, it is difficult to put a finger on a concrete reason for the slide, particularly in limited-overs cricket. They don't lack for talent with the bat, boasting two of the hardest hitters in the game for their senior batsmen and a decent opener in Martin Guptill. The younger batsmen have some technical deficiencies - for it is difficult for a domestic talent pool as shallow as New Zealand's to produce complete batsmen - but there are no glaring flaws shared by the group as a whole. Thirty-one wickets to Ravi Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha in the two recent Tests in India suggests a weakness against spin, but that has not been a theme in other series, or in the shorter formats.
But there has been a marked dearth in that intangible quality that once made them such a compelling side to watch. There has been an inability to dig in and claw back at more highly fancied opposition. Numbers six to nine were once almost a failsafe top-order, but lately they have been fitting precursors to Chris Martin's paper-thin blade. A middle order that once used to flourish under pressure now shrinks at the first sight of it. In the field, they have lost that ability to rally after a breakthrough, and to force a collapse through sheer bottle.
It is that force of will that they must rediscover if they are to win in Sri Lanka. Their top order may not command the records Sri Lanka's colossi do, but what they lack in numbers, they must make up for in desperation, as New Zealand sides of the past once did. The bowlers might not have the measure of the opposition batsmen through skill alone, but when a wicket falls, they must feed off each other's energy to incite panic in the opposition. Fielding is the one discipline in which New Zealand's standards have remained high, and yet they must find ways to exert pressure through presence. Improving technique and temperament is often a lengthy process, but regaining that hunger and killer attitude need not be.
It is difficult to see New Zealand excelling in the Tests, especially at Galle and the SSC, which are not conducive to seam bowling, but to give themselves a chance in the longer format, New Zealand must begin the tour strongly in the limited-overs leg. They will perhaps take encouragement from a World Twenty20 campaign that was a not a disaster. New Zealand tied with both eventual finalists before being bested each time in the Super Over, and they know that an extra run here or there might have seen them qualify for the semi-finals ahead of the eventual champions. New Zealand also played all five World Twenty20 matches at Pallekele, where they begin the tour with a one-off Twenty20 and the first ODI. These may seem contrived sources of optimism, but with a recent record as dire as theirs, New Zealand must find positivity wherever they can.
Sri Lanka is no easy place to tour for even the best teams, and the hosts will expect to trounce a New Zealand side at one of their lowest ebbs in the modern era. New Zealand need a breakthrough tour to end their torment and there is little to suggest that this tour will be it, but if they can rediscover the panache that once defined them, they may just catch fire like the sides of yesteryear did.
Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent in Sri Lanka