New Zealand need to revisit batting strategy
With each series that has come to an end for New Zealand in the last two years, their reputation seems to slide further. Perhaps they will not be as disheartened by this series loss, having had to bear the worst of the weather conditions in addition to facing resolute opposition, but farcical as this tour has sometimes been, it still registers as a loss for New Zealand. Once more, they are left scrambling for positive specks against a bleak backdrop of failure. If they cannot reverse their run in the final ODI, their series will go from disappointing to futile. Sadly, New Zealand's situation is not far removed from the plight of sides like Bangladesh, who are often forced to look beyond the teams' performance and to individual achievements, to glean something from each series.
To that end, BJ Watling has been a revelation. He is thought of as a steady accumulator with a sound defensive technique, but in the third ODI, proved he had the strokes to transform a reticent start into a ravishing finish, particularly under the new rule for fielders. Through him, they have also seemingly found a formula to build competitive totals - by conserving wickets early and aggressing through the middle overs. Yet, despite having put up decent scores in two matches, they have not been able to earn themselves a victory.
Trent Boult has been extremely unfortunate not to have more than two wickets to show for his skill and intent throughout the series, but the other bowlers have often been guilty of giving away too many runs. They have been threatening too, but unlike New Zealand, Sri Lanka's top order has had no trouble scoring quickly in the mandatory Powerplay, because it has benefited from too many poor deliveries from New Zealand's fast men. If the Hambantota pitch is as conducive to seam on Monday as it was for the previous match, perhaps the visitors' attack can afford to dial down the effort, focus on consistency and allow the pitch to do the rest.
With nothing to lose in this match, New Zealand could also trial doubling down on their conservative strategy with the bat. At times in this series, and throughout the World Twenty20, Kane Williamson has seemed superfluous in the batting order. When New Zealand are in search of quick runs, which they often are after a slow start, he is pushed down the order, sometimes below the bowling allrounders. If he is going to play in ODIs at all, perhaps his considerable talent should be exploited at No.3 - a batting role his technique seems tailored for. Brendon McCullum has brought results in the top three in the past, but he has been out of sorts of late, and with only four fielders on the fence, he could use his power game to successfully reprise the finishing role he once performed with relish.
This may leave the top three containing Watling and Williamson seeming somewhat pedestrian. But both those players have shown commitment to expanding their game, and the quicker starts may come, if they are given time and trust atop the batting order.
"I'm happy with the form I'm in, but I've got some things to improve on as well," Watling said ahead of the final ODI. "I need to be a bit smarter at the top there and get a bit of a strike-rate going early for myself. Personally that's something I need to address, and I'm looking forward to the next game and hopefully doing so."
"We've got to adjust to the conditions here. It swung for quite a lot of that last game, so we need to be a bit smarter at the top and put up a good score."
With so much rain around, Sri Lanka's seam bowlers are likely to test New Zealand's batsmen on a pitch that will probably retain much of its movement and bounce. The visitors may be forced into being circumspect anyway, which is all the more reason to allow the more prudent among the New Zealand batsmen to bear the brunt of the new-ball barrage. New Zealand need something to lift them out of their funk, a new strategy that has already hinted at better results is as good an avenue as any.
Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent in Sri Lanka