Overdue catharsis for NZ players and fans
As the sun set at the P Sara Oval, the New Zealand side with all its support staff emerged from the dressing room and trod out to the pitch where 90 minutes ago, Martin Guptill held an edge from Angelo Mathews' bat at second slip to complete a 167-run victory. Some horsed around, others clicked away on cameras or mobile phones. Almost everyone wore a mighty grin.
When they reached the middle they formed a huddle and various men took turns speaking. The coach and senior members of the team first, probably, but eventually Ross Taylor had his say. At his mark, they broke out into the Black Caps' Pledge - New Zealand's version of the victory song - and though a drawn series perhaps didn't warrant champagne, they allowed themselves a shower of beer, cans vigorously shaken. A journalist who has covered every Sri Lanka Test since admittance said he had never seen any team celebrate thus on Sri Lankan soil.
It was not a long or raucous gathering, and as the team flies out this evening, there will be no big party tonight either. It was less victorious merrymaking, more a collective sigh of relief. They had avoided the ignominy of a worst-ever losing streak, and perhaps more importantly, they will no longer be returning to a bloodthirsty public and media at home.
After their team had left the field, two New Zealand fans carrying the national flag and the silver fern took their turn savouring victory in the middle. This win was almost as cathartic for them as it was for the team. Fans of New Zealand cricket who travel to see their team overseas have become a critically endangered breed over the past few years, and perhaps these two had had friends and family snigger at their choice of holiday. Having visited during the monsoon rains, this is a poor vacation by any usual marker, but the men who stood mid-pitch, arms outstretched and posing for no one in particular certainly didn't think they had wasted their time or money. There are plenty in New Zealand who, despite it all, love Richard Hadlee's sport better than Colin Meads' and this is their victory too. They have endured too much hurt not to share a piece of this win with the eleven men who finally achieved it.
Perhaps what is most pleasing about this victory was that there were no major lapses in any discipline. The match was set up by the batsmen in the first innings, before Tim Southee and Trent Boult delivered the haymaker and pinned the hosts to the turf. Sri Lanka may have hinted at rising up with a triple-strike on the fourth afternoon and a stoic resistance from Angelo Mathews on the final day, but in truth, New Zealand never relinquished their grip, and they rarely let their effort subside.
Southee and Boult put the final touches on a sweet script in which they were the primary protagonists. It was fitting too that Boult finished with better figures than Southee in the final innings. He had not swung the ball so dramatically, or sparked as many celebrations, but as Southee himself noted, Boult's untiring efforts have been as vital to New Zealand's triumph as anyone's. In that new ball pair, New Zealand suddenly have an edge to their attack for the first time since the end of Shane Bond's stuttering career.
"The three quicks that we've got at the moment are very exciting and very young, and in Test cricket that's an exciting path," Taylor said. "I guess you've got to give credit to Southee. He led the bowling line-up very well. Boult has only played a handful of games, but he continues to improve each match. Even the two wickets that Doug Bracewell got in the final innings were crucial wickets. [Kumar] Sangakkara and [Mahela] Jayawardene can bat a couple of days if they want to, so it's nice to be able to get them out early."
New Zealand's last Test victory against a top-eight side also came after a heavy loss in the first match of a two-Test series, but arguably, this is the more impressive comeback. So incompetent were New Zealand in the third innings in Galle, that a leveled series appeared a pipe dream. They did not just win in Colombo, they trounced the hosts, and they did it on a pitch that required steady application over five days, rather than a single match-turning innings or spell. The challenge for them now is to build on this performance, which they failed to do after their win in Australia. If the words of their captain are to be believed, they are mindful of the pitfalls of taking more out of a single win than they ought to.
"It's a very happy dressing room, but it's one victory," Taylor said. "We don't want to get too carried away. But we want to enjoy the moment because we've played some very good cricket over five days. Sri Lanka pushed us at times and we showed some good resilience in periods. In Galle when we were under pressure we folded, but here when we were under pressure, different people stood up at different times and performed. That's what happens in good teams. We just need to be more consistent going forward."
At the P Sara, a broken New Zealand finally found the cure that would mend them. They have one of the toughest tours in the world at year's end - a two-Test dalliance in South Africa. They will be bruised there, no doubt, and perhaps beaten again, but at least there is a glimmer for now, and the tunnel of their despair seems far less dispiriting than it did five days ago.
Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent