It's a telling statistic that Daniel Vettori (5), Daryl Tuffey and Jacob Oram (2 each) are the only players in the New Zealand squad to have featured in Tests in Sri Lanka. Such are the odds stacked against the visitors as they head into another two-Test series in Sri Lanka, this time with an inexperienced squad not accustomed to victory. While New Zealand possess a decent record on the island - three wins, three losses and five draws - it's their recent form that raises a question about their chances of success.
While Sri Lanka have just completed their first home series win against Pakistan by a 2-0 margin, New Zealand have won only four Tests in the past two seasons - three of which were against Bangladesh. What makes Sri Lanka their toughest test in recent years is that hardly any of their squad have played on similar pitches or in such gruelling heat and humidity. Vettori had admitted that drawing both Tests would be a positive result for this inexperienced side, and how their newer members adapt to Sri Lankan conditions could have a significant bearing on the result.
The most irritating problem for Vettori is the inconsistency of the top order. New Zealand posted totals of 297 and 240 for 6 against an unassuming attack in their final tour match and their batsmen haven't showed the deliberation and purpose necessary to survive on unfamiliar tracks. Among the bowlers, Vettori is the most experienced and needs the rest to step up. Chris Martin and Iain O'Brien, the most likely new-ball pair, have no experience in Sri Lanka. Galle may be New Zealand's best bet for success given how much seam has worked at the venue, and so they may consider playing three seamers.
Not surprisingly, Sri Lanka start as favourites. They are fearsome at home - since New Zealand's last tour in 2003, Sri Lanka have won nine out of 12 series, losing only to Australia and Pakistan. Their success owes plenty to the tenacity of their batsmen, led by current and former captains Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, whose abilities to bat long periods have resulted in victories. The hosts have a loaded top and middle order with Tillakaratne Dilshan set to open the innings. The fast bowling has rarely looked better with two crafty medium-pacers paving the way for Muttiah Muralitharan and Rangana Herath, who is enjoying a successful comeback. Also up for grabs is the No. 2 spot for Sri Lanka if they seal the series, though its not like they need further incentive to win.
Test form guide
(last five matches, most recent first)
Sri Lanka - DWWDD New Zealand - DDLDD
Watch out for ...
New Zealand's solid middle-order pairing of Ross Taylor and Jesse Ryder have impressed against various teams and in different conditions but this is the first time they're playing against tough opposition in the subcontinent. It's going to be hot, it's going to be muggy, the pitches will mostly play slow and low, and then there's Murali. On previous tours the New Zealand batsmen had to dig in and bat for long periods in sapping conditions. Can Taylor and Ryder do the same?
This is also a big series for Chris Martin, who is coming back from another injury. Martin, 34, recently tied with Danny Morrison on 160 Test wickets in the same number of matches but at a better average and now finds himself leading the attack. O'Brien is less experienced and Tuffey is making a comeback, so Martin, despite playing only one Test in the subcontinent, is the man expected to show the way. The conditions in Galle will assist him but its going to be a lot tougher when the series moves to Colombo.
Following his 68 off 60 balls while opening for Sri Lanka Cricket Development XI in the tour game in Colombo, Tillakaratne Dilshan is likely to replace Malinda Warnapura as Tharanga Paranavitana's opening partner. Injury forced Dilshan out of the limited-overs leg of the recent home series against Pakistan, but his amazing form in 2009 precedes him. Never mind that it will be the first time Dilshan will be opening in his 55-Test career, he is up for any role and desperate to prove himself as an opener in Tests.
Murali is back and will reclaim his spot in the XI, while Ajantha Mendis is likely to miss out again given how well Herath did against Pakistan. Dilshan opening the innings creates room for Angelo Mathews to fit in as an allrounder who offers Sri Lanka a third medium-pace option and a fit Prasanna Jayawardane should take over behind the stumps, allowing Sangakkara to focus on his batting. Nuwan Kulasekara, Man of the Series in the Tests against Pakistan, and Thilan Thushara will make up the pace attack.
Despite making only 64 runs in three innings, Tim McIntosh should keep his place as opener alongside Martin Guptill, whose three innings have yielded 80 runs. Guptill's only half-century on tour was an assured 54 in New Zealand's first innings of the last warm-up while McIntosh dropped anchor for 43 in the second innings. Daniel Flynn will bat at No. 3 and Jacob Oram should slot into the allrounder's spot at No. 7. New Zealand may be tempted to play an extra seamer given Galle's reputation but Patel should step in to partner Vettori. Martin and O'Brien are the first-choice quick men and Tuffey's lack of international outings over the past few years could go against him.
New Zealand: (probable) 1 Tim McIntosh, 2 Martin Guptill, 3 Daniel Flynn, 4 Ross Taylor, 5 Jesse Ryder, 6 Brendon McCullum (wk), 7 Jacob Oram, 8 Daniel Vettori (capt), 9 Jeetan Patel, 10 Iain O'Brien, 11 Chris Martin.
Pitch and conditions
During the last Test played in Galle - in July during the monsoons - the pitch reacted to moisture and the match was won in three days and a session. The ball seamed around throughout the game and conditions were exploited well by the quick bowlers of both Sri Lanka and Pakistan, but ultimately the visitors' inadequacy with the bat proved decisive on the fourth morning. It hasn't rained nearly as much as it did in the lead-up to that Test but the seamers will still fancy their chances.
Stats and trivia
The last time these two teams played a three-Test series was in Sri Lanka in 1998 , when the hosts won 2-1 after losing the first Test.
It has been 25 years since New Zealand last won a Test series in Sri Lanka, but they did manage to draw both games when they toured under Stephen Fleming in 2003.
In five Tests in Sri Lanka, Vettori has taken 20 wickets at 23.30.
Murali has played six Tests against New Zealand at home, taking 39 wickets at 21.79.
New Zealand's only Test in Galle was an innings and 16-run defeat in 1998.
Taylor has scored half-centuries in each of his three innings on the tour so far, and averages 75.33.
"It will be a learning curve for a number of our players as it will be against Murali as well. For some of the guys this is the first time they will be seeing Murali." Daniel Vettori is wary of the threat posed by Test cricket's highest wicket-taker.
"There are a lot of areas we have to work on to become a consistently winning side. We have to take the defeats on the chin and move on by learning from the mistakes we made." Kumar Sangakkara knows Sri Lanka could be rattled by three limited-overs losses in a row.
"This is a chance for me to push my claims to play more for New Zealand; play more Tests, more one-dayers and maybe get back in the Twenty20 side." Though not a certainty for Galle, Jeetan Patel is hoping to cement his place.