SL await trial by pace in Christchurch
December 26-30, 2014
Start time 1100 local (2200 GMT December 25)
Things that are less green than this Hagley Oval surface in the approach to the Test: Kermit the frog, the Kyoto protocol, Sri Lanka's seam attack. It's not that New Zealand don't rate Sri Lanka in seaming conditions. At least, they have not outwardly said they don't. They just rate themselves more. With an outswing bowler in Tim Southee, and inswinging left-armer in Trent Boult, a hit-the-deck seamer in Doug Bracewell, and a tearaway in Neil Wagner, New Zealand possess a fast-bowling full house. Of course they rate themselves.
Previous Sri Lanka teams might have been perturbed by the hue of the surface, and the talk from the opposition, but this side is singing a more confident song. They have no quicks who have played more than 21 Tests, and four of the five fast-bowlers in the squad have played fewer than 16.
But they have done it before, this year, in Dubai, Dhaka and Headingley, they say, so what of the inexperience? Sri Lanka feel they have weapons too. Maybe not the gatling guns and rocket launchers - but a more old-fashioned breed of armaments: like the katana and the shuriken. They weaken the opposition before striking hard, rather than blowing top orders away on sight.
In the batting, New Zealand have the edge again, but when the opposition top order features two candidates for Test cricketer of the year, the hosts can only claim so much of an advantage. It is difficult to recall a time when Kumar Sangakkara was truly out of form. Angelo Mathews, meanwhile, is becoming one of cricket's all-weather batsmen - as competent stonewalling on a spicy pitch, as he is attacking on a dustbowl.
New Zealand, meanwhile, have Kane Williamson in imperious touch, and Ross Taylor not trailing far behind. As India found out early in the year, Brendon McCullum is capable of monster innings, as well as the momentum-pinching slap-dash fifties.
The hosts are clear favourites, largely by dint of familiarity with the conditions. But in 2014, Sri Lanka have begun to build a reputation as a decent traveling team, and they are desperate to protect that.
(last five matches, most recent first)
New Zealand: WDLWL
Sri Lanka: WWDLW
In the spotlight
Kane Williamson has been New Zealand's long-term batting investment, and in 2014, he has proved to be the ace-in-the-hole the team had hoped he would become. He averages 60.28 in eight Tests this year, and has doubled his century-count to eight. He is coming off a rich tour in the UAE in all formats, and if Sri Lanka's spinners ever become relevant in this tour, he is the New Zealand batsman best-placed to counter it.
Angelo Mathews was named captain of the ICC XI this year, but no one is more aware than the man himself that the greatest tests for his leadership are to come. Mathews has had perhaps the best support network of any international captain in his 18 months at the helm, with Mahela Jayawardene's tactical acumen to call upon, as well as Rangana Herath and Kumar Sangakkara's experience. Now, with Jayawardene retired and Herath ruled out of the first Test, Mathews has lost a good portion of his safety net. It will be intriguing to see if he will continue in the aggressive vein he has recently developed, or slip back into the conservatism that marked the early part of his captaincy.
Sri Lanka have plenty of options with their attack, with Shaminda Eranga and Suranga Lakmal the only certainties to play. Dhammika Prasad is the most likely third seamer, but Nuwan Pradeep may be an option as well. Then they have to make a decision between uncapped Tharindu Kaushal's big turn, and Dilruwan Perera's control.
Sri Lanka (probable): 1 Dimuth Karunaratne, 2 Kaushal Silva, 3 Kumar Sangakkara, 4 Lahiru Thirimanne, 5 Angelo Mathews (capt.), 6 Dinesh Chandimal, 7 Prasanna Jayawardene (wk), 8 Tharindu Kaushal/Dilruwan Perera, 9 Dhammika Prasad, 10 Shaminda Eranga, 11 Suranga Lakmal
Brendon McCullum has virtually confirmed offspinner Mark Craig will play, despite the green surface, so the major question will be whether Bracewell or Wagner gets the nod as the third seamer. The top order is fairly settled, with Dean Brownlie more likely to slot into the middle order than for Hamish Rutherford to occupy a place at the top.
New Zealand: (probable) 1 Tom Latham, 2 Brendon McCullum, 3 Kane Williamson, 4 Ross Taylor, 5 Dean Brownlie, 6 James Neesham , 7 BJ Watling (wk), 8 Mark Craig, 9 Doug Bracewell/Neil Wagner, 10 Tim Southee, 11 Trent Boult
Pitch and conditions
The pitch is positively leafy, with bounce and pace as well, according to the groundsman. Sri Lanka can expect a trial by pace. The skies should be clear for the first two days as well, and while the weather is not quite balmy, even the Sri Lanka players probably won't need their sweaters.
Stats and trivia
- The Boxing Day Test is the first of its kind in New Zealand, in 11 years. It is also the first Test in Christchurch since 2006. Sri Lanka were the tourists on that last occasion as well.
- Angelo Mathews averages 86.62 from 13 matches as captain.
- Sri Lanka's first ever overseas series win came in New Zealand, when they won one match and drew the other in 1995, but have since won only one more game in six attempts. That win came in Wellington in 2006.
"The style of cricket that we're playing, over the last 18 months or so, is something that the country enjoys. They also enjoy the fact that we are going to fight hard and make it tough for opposition teams to beat us, if they do beat us. They also see the hard work and characteristics of the team that fights all the way coming through. We've seen the groundswell of public support for this team, and I don't think it's just because of results. It's because of the personalities that we have and the style of cricket we're playing, and the humbleness we play it in."
Brendon McCullum reflects on the new-found affection New Zealand's public have for their cricket team
"We had a very green wicket in the Queenstown practice match as well, and I think that was really good. That really helps you to get into the mindset of playing on these conditions, whether you are a batsman or a bowler."
Batsman Dinesh Chandimal on the benefits of Sri Lanka's two-day practice game, on a greentop
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando