SL batsmen must overcome pace test
Though New Zealand lost the first Test early due to their failure against spin, Sri Lanka's batsmen hadn't fared too well either. On the second day, four top-order batsmen and the nightwatchman had fallen for 50 runs, and a first-innings lead, which they eventually achieved, seemed a long way away. A measured partnership between Mahela Jayawardene and Angelo Mathews rescued them then, but it was made easier by a Galle pitch that withdrew its assistance for the seamers after the 25th over. The pitch at the P Sara Oval is less generous to batsmen, and Sri Lanka's top order cannot afford another collapse.
But it is perhaps harsh to cast Sri Lanka's wobble as a failure against swing bowling because the movement Tim Southee and Trent Boult generated was of the highest quality. Almost every delivery in the first 20 overs curved in the air, and many moved off the seam as well. At one stage, Ross Taylor had eight men stationed in a catching position, six of them behind square on the off side.
But it is also not an anomaly for Sri Lanka, who have failed against the moving ball before. Against England at the P Sara Oval in March, James Anderson dismissed Sri Lanka's top three for 30, effectively paving the way for a large first-innings total for England, and thereby, a series-levelling victory. In Sri Lanka's tour of South Africa three months earlier, they had surrendered 30 wickets to Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn, who had a combined average of 16.8. In the third Test at Newlands, Sri Lanka lost 16 wickets to South Africa's seam attack, while their own pace bowlers could only manage two wickets. There is no doubt that Steyn and Co are in a different league to Chanaka Welegedara and Dhammika Prasad, but the batsmen must bear some blame when they average 29.05 per wicket in a Test in which their opponents average 145.
It is a weakness Sri Lanka's batsmen have always had, and though those playing international cricket are now exposed to seam-friendly conditions even at home - with the pitches in Pallekele and Hambantota helping the quicks - a diet of dour domestic wickets that remain slow, low and dry have not allowed burgeoning talent to develop effective technique against effective seam and swing bowling. Tharanga Paranavitana is a prime example. He is adept at working the spinners around the park, and has even flayed fast men with a flowing range of strokes on the off side, but only if the ball is not moving. His judgment outside the off stump has been found wanting. He has left balls that have cannoned into his off stump and prodded at others that were never threatening the stumps, and brought his demise via a catch to the keeper or the slips.
Jayawardene was perhaps the most complete batsman to debut for Sri Lanka, but ever since his maiden hundred, his record outside the subcontinent has been the cudgel with which his bids for greatness have been thumped away. Though his technique has improved despite a poor tour of South Africa, he is still far more uncertain outside off stump than a man befitting his experience and talent.
Southee and Boult have barely had a bad game this tour, and if Doug Bracewell can find that difficult length for his hit-the-deck away-seamers, New Zealand will test Sri Lanka's most obvious chink. The P Sara Oval hasn't been a happy venue for Sri Lanka of late because of its bounce, and their pace attack is New Zealand's best hope of sparking an upset win.
"It looks a very good wicket and a competitive one, probably with something for bowlers more than in Galle," Jayawardene said on the eve of the second Test. "We need to make use of that opportunity and try and make sure that we get on top. In Galle, we thought after the first day we were in a good position, but after two sessions on the second day, we felt that we were behind them, and had to fight our way back. On the third morning, we managed to take control of the game, but we need to make sure that we don't get into those sorts of situations and be on top from throughout."
Having already picked their squad for Australia, the longer-term significance of their performance in this Test is not lost on Sri Lanka. If they are to avoid another overseas trip replete with an innings loss and a near-innings loss, as they did in South Africa, Sri Lanka's top order must learn to conquer pace, bounce and movement. Peter Siddle, James Pattinson and Ben Hilfenhaus await, but first they must win past Southee, Boult and Bracewell.
Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent in Sri Lanka