Clouds loom over odd encounter
It is a fortunate thing that, by this stage in 2013, Sri Lanka fans have developed a sense of humour as a means of coping with their team's schedule. Two Tests in the West Indies were canned to accommodate the IPL, in which Sri Lanka players almost universally bombed, then the biggest incoming Test tour in years, featuring No. 1-ranked South Africa, was postponed to accommodate an SLPL that flopped in an even more emphatic fashion - by failing to begin at all.
In the intervening months, the plight of the nation's highest-paid sportsmen was almost identical to the fate of so many of Colombo's street cricketers, who have to play matches amongst themselves when no opposition turns up. Now, finally, there is some cricket in touching distance. Depleted opposition, maybe, and battered, but who cares? Real flesh-and-blood international cricketers from New Zealand have arrived in the country.
But, oh dear, so has the northeast monsoon.
You would think by now, Sri Lanka's rains would have learnt to work around the cricket patterns in the country. This tour was scheduled all the way back in 2008 but the depressions rolling in from the Bay of Bengal have refused compromise and rebuffed basic sense. Surely they are aware that, year after year, Sri Lanka Cricket will host international series in October and November. To be fair to the board, it is difficult to negotiate a happy outcome when such imprudence abounds.
Not that New Zealand will mind so much. This is not a tour that would stoke particular excitement at home, ahead of the summer, and New Zealand's selectors suggested as much when they pulled their two best batsmen, Brendon McCullum and Ross Taylor, out of the series. Kane Williamson, who was supposed to lead in their stead has also since been ruled out, leaving Kyle Mills with a job he admits he did not expect.
After New Zealand were embarrassed in Bangladesh, Mills' first task will be to inspire a team that may be less than excited at the prospect of another subcontinental ODI series. But, at least on the subject of watching Sri Lankan storms blow through, he can be sure to provide robust leadership and valuable insight: he is a veteran of last November's plentifully moist limited-overs campaign.
New Zealand will hope, though, that apathy will be overcome by the will of young men out to prove themselves. Allrounder James Neesham has an opportunity to embed himself in the ODI team, after his two outings in Dhaka brought him eight wickets. If he can reclaim his batting form from the recent Champions League as well, he may show himself to be the kind of player New Zealand have lacked since Jacob Oram's exceptional early years. Batsmen Colin Munro, Anton Devcich and tearaway fast bowler Adam Milne are also on trial, while Grant Elliott and Neil Broome seek to re-establish themselves in positions they once held.
The sum of all this ambition seems less likely to topple the hosts than if New Zealand had fielded a full-strength side, but if Hambantota serves up more pace-friendly pitches, as it often tends to, the tourists will be buoyed by the memory of their last ODI at the venue, where they had Sri Lanka 123 for 8 before the heavens opened up.
Despite the possibility of rain and the relative inexperience of the opposition, however, Sri Lanka's cricketers appear genuinely excited at the prospect of finally playing internationals, as do many fans. Mahela Jayawardene, who has hit form in the two practice matches in Colombo, even went as far as tweeting a picture of the back of Lasith Malinga and Ajantha Mendis' heads, with the caption, "In bus off to Hambantota! Great to be on tour again". It is probably safe to say this is the most thrilled anyone outside the Sri Lankan government has ever been about going to Hambantota.
The hosts' game plan will likely revolve around their spin attack, as it did when South Africa toured in July. In that series, Mendis and Sachithra Senanayake flummoxed an inexperienced top order, while either Rangana Herath or Tillakaratne Dilshan provided steady support. Angelo Mathews has been averse to experiments and speculative calls so far during his tenure, and is unlikely to depart from such an effective blueprint.
The onus to assure fans that a future without the seniors is not so bleak is again on middle-order men Mathews, Dinesh Chandimal and Lahiru Thirimanne, but the most interesting subplot in the side will be Dimuth Karunaratne's race with Kusal Perera for one opener's slot. Perera has shown signs of form in the past weeks but none so emphatic as Karunaratne, who outscored him in the practice matches, as well as in List A and first-class cricket in recent months.
If the weather, incredibly, stays away, New Zealand's youth will need to discover the spark that eluded the team in Bangladesh to avoid another one-sided series, rusty as Sri Lanka might be. Neither team has momentum going in and, if nothing else, the manner in which they seek to overcome inertia ahead of full tours will at least make interesting viewing.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here