'This win is a sign of the team's character' - Mills
Kyle Mills, the New Zealand acting captain, has said his team's remarkable chase in Hambantota was a win borne of fight, and reserved special praise for the innings' of protagonist Tom Latham and the furious finish provided by Nathan McCullum. Pursuing 198 in the rain-reduced 23-over chase, New Zealand claimed victory off the last ball, taking a 1-0 lead in the series, with one match to play.
Both batsmen had revived the chase when Sri Lanka appeared to have the match in their pockets. Twenty-one-year-old Latham held one end firm as wickets tumbled at the other in the first half of New Zealand's innings, before launching a frenetic attack on Sri Lanka during the middle overs, alongside Luke Ronchi. His 86 off 68 was his first fifty in 12 ODI innings.
"In my mind this win is a sign of the character we have in this group," Mills said. "We fought pretty hard in this game. Tom Latham played a great hand for us. For a guy so young, he played a very mature innings and never lost his head in any situation. The other guys chipped in - I thought what Colin Munro did brought a momentum shift even though he didn't get a big score, Luke Ronchi played exceptionally well, and then to have Nathan to come out at the end and take the game by the scruff of the neck was huge for us."
McCullum's hand in the victory was in many ways just as crucial as Latham's contributions, and perhaps more dramatic. He arrived at the crease when Latham and Ronchi had fallen in quick succession, seemingly surrendering the result to Sri Lanka. McCullum first hit two fours in Lasith Malinga's penultimate over, before providing the game's most arresting sequence. Needing 17 to win from the last four balls, McCullum walloped Rangana Herath for a six, then a four, then two more sixes, to complete the win.
"It was going to be a tough ask to hit 20 off the last over," Mills said. "Nathan McCullum showed great intent as soon as he arrived at the wicket, and he has been hitting the ball reasonably well in the nets. He's a guy who's a bit of a scrapper and a fighter. If you want to put any guy in that situation, you probably want to put Nathan McCullum there. He played Malinga with nice intent, and I'm sure it was nice for him personally to have made such a remarkable contribution."
Ronchi and Latham had already been to Sri Lanka with the A team in the past two months, and had both also recently played in India and Bangladesh, on an extended tour of the subcontinent. Mills said their knowledge of local conditions and bowlers likely contributed to their 93-run match-turning stand. Luke Ronchi's 49 was also his highest score for New Zealand, though he has hit an ODI fifty for Australia in the past.
"It helped that they were on the pretty extensive A programme that New Zealand Cricket put in place. They had some time over here in Sri Lanka and got used to conditions. I think they had a lot of composure out there in the middle tonight. It was a tough situation for them and it was the partnership that won us the game. I'm also pleased for Luke that he got a score on the board."
Before this match Mills had expressed confidence in his team's ability to chase tall scores, and though Sri Lanka set up an imposing total through Kumar Sangakkar and Tillakaratne Dilshan, Mills said the visitors felt comfortable with the score they were made to chase.
"In the last T20 game we played, we chased a big total, and our batters were in a bit of form. The game before that we hit a big total - over 300 against Bangladesh, in an ODI. Observing the guys in the nets in the past few days, I knew there were quite a few guys who were in form and seeing the ball well. After a slow start we saw a bit of composure there from the group. It just goes to show that with the introduction of T20 cricket in the last few years, it gives batters the confidence to chase any total down."
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here