Conjuring demons where there weren't any

There are few things worse than playing a bowler and his reputation rather than playing the ball on its merit. One of those is playing the pitch rather than the bowler. And that's exactly what New Zealand did, in their match against Sri Lanka on a freshly glued-together strip at the Brabourne Stadium in Mumbai. Uncertain about what the pitch would do the top order did anything but bat normally, and only a late charge from Daniel Vettori even kept them in the game at the time dinner was taken.

The pitch was an unusual sight, much whiter than normal, the red clay of the square barely visible under the polyvinyl acetate. But Andy Atkinson, the ICC's pitch expert, had said quite clearly that the adhesive would only serve in ensuring that the pitch did not deteriorate rapidly. It was no magic fix that would change the basic nature of the pitch.

Stephen Fleming, who had given a masterclass on batting in these conditions in the game against South Africa, began as though he was still playing on that pitch - which admittedly was a nightmare, with the top coming off in the second half - and did all he could to keep the ball out. And he did that for a little more than twenty minutes before missing one and being trapped in front for a duck.

With Fleming out of the way, Sri Lanka's bowlers had a strong chance to redress the imbalance thrust on them after they'd lost the toss and been forced to bowl first. But they seemed intent on giving New Zealand a helping hand, sending down wides and no-balls like they had a quota to fill. New Zealand's batsmen, though, still had one eye on the pitch and Lou Vincent's attempted heave across the line only resulted in timber disturbed. Hamish Marshall picked a short, wide one to fall to, slapping the ball straight to the fielder at point.

With the pacemen doing the job early on, it was never going to be easy to ease the pressure when the spinners came on with their strangling spells. Sanath Jayasuriya pushed the ball through efficiently, running through deliveries in quick time. When he dropped one short Scott Styris, who was having trouble getting the ball away, was perhaps overly anxious to make it count, and a crashing cut shot went straight into Kumar Sangakkara's gloves via the edge.

When wickets are falling regularly, the last man you want to be up against is Muttiah Muralitharan. Like Shane Warne, who can create pressure with nothing more than a glare and an exclamation of disbelief at how a delivery of his failed to pick up a wicket, Murali can put doubts in the minds of batsmen. One of Anil Kumble's favourite methods of sorting out a batsman is to push him further and further back and then slip him the pacy slider, getting the lbw into play. For Muralitharan, creating indecision is a way of life. And if you're tentative in playing, and can't read the ball out of the hand, then it's only a matter of time before you play a false stroke to the doosra.

Jacob Oram had the unwanted distinction of being bowled round the pads by a straight one as he walked across his stumps and played for the turn even as the ball went the other way. Nathan Astle had hung around, despite not being entirely convincing, and his attempted slog sweep was easily pouched at midwicket. Brendon McCullum, for reasons best known to him, decided to reverse sweep Murali and the ball bobbed up to slip. With Kyle Mills not being good enough to keep out a ball from a pumped up Murali, the master had taken his tally to 424 wickets.

Sri Lanka had New Zealand down for the count at 118 for 9, and should have delivered the knock out then and there. But if there is one criticism that can be levelled at Mahela Jayawardene's imaginative and intelligent captaincy, it is that he does not really believe in keeping something from Murali in reserve. So when the last wicket partnership was annoyingly holding things up, he had to go to Chaminda Vaas and Lasith Malinga to bowl at the death, and this was costly.

Vettori, who is certainly no mug with the bat, bedded down and began to coax the ball through the infield. When the time came, he attacked, hitting Vaas for 19 in the penultimate over of the innings, ending on an unbeaten 46, the highest score of the innings, to push the score to 165.

But 165 was never going to test Sri Lanka unless the pitch suddenly broke up and became unplayable. Atkinson's adhesive ensured that no such thing happened, and Sri Lanka cantered home. Only a few days ago, there were complaints that the pitch was deteriorating too rapidly as the day wore on. Who knows, someone might now find fault with the fact that it held up so well. But it certainly won't be Sri Lanka who're looking ominously good in any conditions presented to them.