New Zealand blindsided as spin takes hold
When Brendon McCullum skipped towards Rangana Herath and aimed a scything blow down the ground, it carried the intent of a team's star player embossing his mark on the game. What followed certainly set the tone. Unfortunately for New Zealand, it was Herath who turned out to be the match-winner.
Herath had already executed a run-out off his own bowling when McCullum arrived at the crease. New Zealand's captain defended a couple before Herath's fifth delivery went on with the arm to strike the pad, resulting in an excited lbw appeal. The next was tossed up and this time it dipped, gripped and slipped past McCullum's outside edge, leaving him short of his ground. New Zealand had been struck a blow they would not recover from.
In Herath's following over, still having not conceded a run, three consecutive deliveries thudded into Ross Taylor's pad, the last of which no umpire could deny. With a short leg and a slip in place, his next ball insinuated its way through a befuddled Jimmy Neesham and New Zealand were four down, pinned likes flies on a windshield by the dawning realisation that this was the Zahur Ahmed Chowdhury pitch, Jim, but not as we know it.
Two tracks have been in rotation in Chittagong, with four matchdays apiece. The pace and bounce had encouraged McCullum to suggest New Zealand, South Africa and England would prefer the conditions, particularly in the evening when dew helped the ball zip on. Sri Lanka were spectacularly burned by England and Alex Hales on Thursday but, after two weeks of competition, the ground suddenly shifted under New Zealand's feet. Their misfortune, perhaps, was to face a must-win game on a worn pitch against the only subcontinental side in the group.
McCullum certainly felt a little blindsided, though he stressed that the better team on the night had won. Winning the toss and then bowling out Sri Lanka for 119 seemed to have given New Zealand a brightly lit path to the semi-finals but the ball held up a lot more than previously, while the absence of dew meant Sri Lanka's spinners were not handicapped in the same way they were against England.
"The wicket was completely different," McCullum said. "We anticipated it to skid on as it has done right throughout every game that has been played here and every team that has won the toss has wanted to chase at night. We expected that to happen but it was really dry, almost a little bit underprepared, the way it played towards the end, and we didn't adapt our games quick enough.
"There were some soft dismissals, poor options, myself included and we couldn't find the balance between being aggressive enough to get us a start chasing a small total, and conserving wickets and trying to stem the flow of their momentum. In the end the team that won and qualified for the semi-finals is a far better team than us."
The groundstaff had been using a spray to try and reduce the effect of dew but this appeared to be the first evening match on which it had any affect. "We found out midway through the game that the outfield was sprayed for anti-dew, which obviously hasn't been done throughout the rest of the tournament, so that was a bit of a surprise as well," McCullum said.
"I think as long as the conditions are consistent throughout, so the teams can get a strategy and an understanding - it's disappointing to see them change so much in one game but we should have been better than that as well. Certainly no sour grapes from our point of view, we certainly should have chased down 120 and only getting halfway is nowhere near good enough."
With Herath barking out time like an army drill instructor, McCullum's side were whirled into oblivion, bowled out for the lowest total by a Full Member side in T20 internationals, despite Kane Williamson making 42 - more than two thirds of their runs. Williamson was New Zealand's leading batsman at the tournament, as more explosive team-mates such as Martin Guptill, Corey Anderson - who did not bat against Sri Lanka after dislocating his finger - and to a lesser extent McCullum failed to fire.
"Batting at No.3 and the role that I've played for us for a period of time, we rely on me to make contributions and running down the wicket and getting stumped for nought trying to create some intensity in that first six overs was not ideal," McCullum said. "At two down, I still thought we were going to chase 120 but I'm disappointed not to make a contribution and to get out like that as well. I still thought we should have chased it... at least got a lot closer."
Defeat revived memories of New Zealand's recent troubles in Bangladesh, where they were whitewashed in ODIs for the second time late last year. They were not among the World T20 favourites, nor were they the side a majority of the crowd came to cheer on. The dreaded presence of the Mexican wave rippling around the stands suggested how easy Sri Lanka had made look what should have been a difficult game.
Having stumbled short of the winning post against South Africa earlier in the group, when they only need seven off the final over with five wickets in hand, McCullum acknowledged that improvements would be required if New Zealand are to produce the desired challenge on home soil at the 2015 World Cup.
"I said right at the outset that we were going to have to play well, right from the start of the tournament. We're not good enough to only play at 80%. There's been some things that irked me throughout the tournament and I'll be addressing those later. But I thought our cricket smarts weren't there, when you're playing on these surfaces that are foreign to what we're used to and the nature of T20, you've got to be very smart and decisive with your decision-making as well.
"You can't afford to be lacking in cricket intelligence. That's what I think we lacked in this tournament and hence we coughed up some opportunities to win games that we should have. Something is going to have to change at some stage, otherwise we'll keep turning up a tournaments, winning a couple, losing a couple and never claiming any silver. That's not what we play for and something's going to have to change if New Zealand's going to start winning major tournaments."
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here