Sri Lanka squandered a great chance to register their maiden victory of the series, and despite restricting New Zealand to a manageable 224 for 9, lost by 21 runs. Chaminda Vaas had set the game up beautifully with 5 for 39 from 10 probing overs, but Sri Lanka's batsmen, first choked by Daniel Vettori and Jeetan Patel, the SuperSub offspinner, then blasted by Shane Bond, failed to come good.
Chasing 225 should have been a walk in WestPac Park, with its short boundaries and minimal assistance for bowlers, but Sri Lanka had other ideas. They began well enough, scooting along to 136 for 3 on the back of a breezy half-century from Kumar Sangakkara, but an utter lack of planning in the middle order led to a collapse that left them at 171 for 7.
Upul Tharanga failed to cash in on his good form from the last match, where he scored his second ODI hundred, and failed early, but Sangakkara, through energetic cutting and calculated pulling, and to a lesser extent Jehan Mubarak, set Sri Lanka well on course. Both batsmen were happy to go over the infield, flashing hard at anything with a bit of width on it to go over cover-point, and pulling with alacrity, peppering the short square boundaries. They put together a partnership of 76 for the second wicket, pushing the score along to 92 before Sangakkara played all over a slower one from Chris Cairns and was bowled for 52.
Mahela Jayawardene, wildly talented and yet frequently underperforming, threw his wicket away in the time it would take to expand his four initials, and Marvan Atapattu, stuck in two minds between attack and consolidation, chipped Vettori gently to cover. All of a sudden Sri Lanka's batting line-up did not look so flash, and Fleming began to apply the pressure.
Credit must go to New Zealand for the manner in which they refused to give up, and applied the pressure mercilessly. Mubarak, who had helped himself to 53, began to feel the heat, and when he went, well caught by Cairns running around from mid-on off Patel, Sri Lanka were in deep trouble at 156 for 5. There were two new batsmen at the crease and the spinners dried up the runs, bowling imaginatively yet restrictively.
Then Fleming whipped out his trump card, bringing Bond back into the attack well before the 40th over. In the 39th Bond speared a quick yorker past the defences of Tillakaratne Dilshan (17) and two balls later sent down a bone crunching full-toss that trapped Farveez Maharoof in front of the stumps. At 171 for 7, even with the required run-rate well under control, Sri Lanka needed Russel Arnold to play a special innings to take them over the line. Arnold barely got his eye in for 11 off 21 balls before he missed a sweep off a flat, full one from Patel, who ended with a brilliant 2 for 23 from 10 overs, and was trapped in front.
At 189 for 9, it was all down to Malinga Bandara, the man known for his legspin who was ironically brought in as SuperSub only to bat in place of Muttiah Muralitharan. He flailed, flat-batted and thrashed about desperately, but could only delay the inevitable, streaking along to 12, pushing the score to 203 before holing out.
In all this, though, spare a thought for Vaas, who had broken the back of the New Zealand batting. With 5 for 39 from his 10 overs, including a maiden and the wickets of Fleming, Scott Styris, Cairns and Brendon McCullum - the top New Zealand batsmen, he had done all that could be asked of him. In fact, it was only enterprising innings from Peter Fulton and Hamish Marshall, both of whom made 50, that even kept New Zealand in the hunt early on.
The collapse they suffered, from 131 for 3 to 163 for 6 and then 189 for 9, should have put paid to any hopes of them getting to a competitive total. James Franklin though struck some lusty blows, rattling up 29 not out from just 27 balls, with 3 fours and a six, pushing New Zealand on to 224 for 9 from 50 overs. It was a total that should never have been enough, but New Zealand did what they do best. A combination of clever captaincy, restrictive bowling, supportive fielding and most of all, an uncanny belief in their ability to pull of a win from behind resulted in Sri Lanka being left high and dry, 21 runs short.
Jamie How c Sangakkara b Vaas 5 (14 for 1)
Tickled one outside off
Lou Vincent c Muralitharan b Maharoof 8 (14 for 2)
Pulled to mid-on
Stephen Fleming b Vaas 37 (85 for 3)
Came down the pitch and missed the ball
Peter Fulton c Maharoof b Fernando 50 (131 for 4)
Heaved to midwicket
Scott Styris c Maharoof b Vaas 13 (154 for 5)
Pulled straight to the man on the ropes on the leg-side
Chris Cairns c & b Vaas 2 (163 for 6)
Popped back a simple catch
Brendon McCullum c Arnold b Vaas 1 (165 for 7)
Chipped to mid-on
Hamish Marshall c Vaas b Maharoof 50 (183 for 8)
Soft dismissal, hit straight to mid-on
Daniel Vettori b Muralitharan 7 (189 for 9)
Flummoxed by a doosra
Upul Tharanga c McCullum b Franklin 9 (16 for 1)
Flashed at one outside off
Kumar Sangakkara b Cairns 52 (92 for 2)
Played all over a slower ball after being completely deceived
Mahela Jayawardene c McCullum b Franklin 12 (106 for 3)
Played a lazy shot and edged to the keeper
Marvan Atapattu c Vincent b Vettori 19 (136 for 4)
Chipped to cover
Jehan Mubarak c Cairns b Patel 53 (156 for 5)
Well caught by mid-on running around
Tillakaratne Dilshan b Bond 17 (171 for 6)
Cleaned up by a fast yorker
Farveez Maharoof lbw b Bond 0 (171 for 7)
Trapped in front by a full, straight one
Chaminda Vaas c How b Styris 9 (184 for 8)
Flashed to point
Russel Arnold lbw b Patel 9 (189 for 9)
Swept and missed a ball that pitched and straightened
Malinga Bandara c Styris b Bond 12 (203 for 10)
Top edged an attempted big hit
Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Cricinfo