On a dark day in Colombo, in a rain-afflicted match that has no rights to be even close to yielding a result, New Zealand are on the hunt. They have mostly been supreme predators over the last few years. Eight times they have bowled last, under Kane Williamson; on six of those occasions they've defended fourth-innings targets. One time, in Hamilton, when the match seemed destined to end in a comatose draw - Pakistan going to tea on the final day at 158 for 1 - the bowlers defibrillated the contest to violent life early in the last session, left-armers, right-armers, spinners, medium-pace dobblers, all snatching key wickets in twilight like a mob looting a jewellery store.
This, in Colombo, is not a fourth-innings defence. But up against them are a side that had denied them from strong positions twice in the last three Tests. In Galle, eight days ago, Dimuth Karunaratne and Lahiru Thirimanne tamed a wearing surface, as Sri Lanka chased down by far the highest total at that venue. Nine months before that, in Wellington, Angelo Mathews and Kusal Mendis wore balls on their bodies before dead-batting, counter-punching and push-up-celebrating their way through an entire day, ultimately saving the Test.
"When the spinners are at the bowling crease, the infield is packed with more men than molecules. Williamson would shove fielders up each of the batsman's nostrils if he could"
But, New Zealand are desperate to level this series now, and on show from them are all the fifth-day Asian-pitch tropes. With fast bowlers tearing in, there is a short cover, a short midwicket, two slips spaced wide apart, a gully and a short leg. When the spinners are at the bowling crease, the infield is packed with more men than molecules - leg slips, silly points, catching mid-offs. Williamson would shove fielders up each of the batsman's nostrils if he could. And as soon batsman appeared to work out a plan against a bowler, Williamson would swap the bowler out, or change the field. So you think you passed that test? Try this one. A packed offside field, a spinner ripping the ball away from the bat. Dare you to sweep against the turn.
For virtually all of day four, Sri Lanka's stand-in captain Mathews sat back and had expected a notorious P Sara Oval pitch to do the wicket-taking, rarely presenting the New Zealand batsmen with a fresh examination. This was the day on which New Zealand made 186 for the loss of just one wicket and swung the Test emphatically in their favour.
Essentially, Williamson was outdoing a seasoned local, but he wasn't the only one. Trent Boult, his fast left-arm weapon, averages a respectable 31.70 in Asia, but far more importantly, an outstanding 18.05 in Sri Lanka. Tim Southee, Boult's right-arm soulmate, has numbers that are even more monstrous, averaging 25.12 across 11 Tests in Asia, and a sublime 15.47 on the island. By the time they are done with this innings, both quicks have more than 250 Test wickets.
On the spin front, Ajaz Patel and William Somerville, inexperienced though they may be, had both made outstanding bowling contributions during New Zealand's victory in the UAE last year, sharing 20 wickets between them. On the final day, they take two apiece, Somerville bowling a drifting, dipping, ripping offbreak to wriggle between bat and pad, and clip the stumps of Kusal Mendis, one of Sri Lanka's best players of spin.
This is a stirring New Zealand victory. Even at the end of day three, no one had quite imagined it. But then maybe we should have. This team knows what it is doing. The win didn't come out of nowhere.
The last time New Zealand played at Test at the P Sara Oval, Ross Taylor and Williamson hit centuries. Neither of their careers are over, but for almost any observer, Taylor and Williamson will go down as two of New Zealand's five greatest ever batsmen, or even perhaps two of the best three, alongside Martin Crowe. At Galle, Taylor had hit 86, and Williamson had made two single-figure scores, but still, New Zealand put up two good totals.
"Their being "greater than the sum of their parts" is now such a cliche, banks should let New Zealand cricketers withdraw more money than they have in their accounts, without going into overdraft"
At the Sara, these two great batsmen made 43 runs between them in the only batting innings the weather had left to New Zealand's disposal. And yet, they could hardly have dealt with the situation better. Tom Latham, swept intelligently - almost always with the spin - picked the right balls to defend, pounced on the short deliveries, and fought his way to 154. This was his biggest hundred in Asia, but not his first, two tons in the UAE having come before. This might have been his highest-quality innings of the past nine months, but not inarguably so - scores of 264 not out, 176 and 161 also having come in his eight most-recent innings. In fact, since the start of 2017, no opener can even come close to Latham's numbers - his average up at 58.03, the second-best - Shikhar Dhawan - down at less than 45.
BJ Watling, who also hit a hundred at the Sara, had previously made a century in India, and now averages 37.45 on the continent. Aside from one missed stumping in Galle, his wicketkeeping has been characteristically immaculate, and he also claimed maybe the catch of the series - a delayed, full-length dive to have Suranga Lakmal caught off the gloves in Sri Lanka's first innings. Henry Nicholls, meanwhile, had hit a vital hundred in Abu Dhabi last year, and currently sits fifth on the Test batting rankings. He didn't cross 50 in this series but was involved in important stands, both in Galle and at the Sara.
Colin de Grandhomme's ballistic 83 off 77 balls, without which this victory may not have been possible, was perhaps a breakout performance. He had never hit a fifty away from home. But his was the only one. In New Zealand's top order, they had batsmen ranked third (Williamson), fifth (Nicholls), 12th (Taylor) and 13th (Latham). Taylor and Williamson may not have made runs in this match, but someone was going to. This team knows what it is doing. The win didn't come out of nowhere.
New Zealand weight above their punch. They stop never fighting. No matter how much you garble those sentences, you know what they mean. We've heard these things about New Zealand before. Their being "greater than the sum of their parts" is now such a cliche, banks should let New Zealand cricketers withdraw more money than they have in their accounts, without going into overdraft.
The only area of bona-fide excellence many would grant to New Zealand was their fielding. "One of the best," most say. Only "one of" even in eras in which New Zealand were at the cutting edge of the craft, clinging to impossible chances in the gully like cartoon characters cling to speeding trains. On the last day at the Sara, it had been Latham's brilliance at short leg that effectively sealed victory, as he sprinted toward leg slip when he saw Dickwella go down for a paddle sweep, before intercepting the shot beautifully. Even this was no fluke, though. He'd taken a far more impressive catch, in exactly the same position, in virtually the same fashion, off Faf du Plessis, in 2017. On that occasion, the ball had been flying faster and higher, to his right - his off-hand.
In Colombo, New Zealand claimed a draw to claim their sixth undefeated Test series in a row. The previous five, they had won outright, including against Pakistan in the UAE, where the likes Australia and England have had infamous troubles. They've done all this, because whatever New Zealand outfits of the past have been like, this team's "parts" are genuinely outstanding now.
In the next eight months, they will play series against the most high-profile sides on the planet - England first, then Australia, then finally India. If they pull off victories there, there's genuinely no need to resort to old cliches. Blessed with some of the finest players in the world, you can be sure that this New Zealand team knows what it is doing. Their wins don't come out of nowhere.