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Match Analysis

Hagley Oval, Sri Lanka, and the collapse that never came

Mendis, Karunaratne, Mathews, Chandimal and de Silva refused to buckle, and that's not happened often

Key to Kusal Mendis' 87 off 83 was his judgment of length on a somewhat bouncy surface  •  AFP/Getty Images

Key to Kusal Mendis' 87 off 83 was his judgment of length on a somewhat bouncy surface  •  AFP/Getty Images

Sometimes you need only describe the scene at a cricket ground to know what is about to happen.
The skies monochrome and heavy like a wet blanket that is about to be applied to the series at the first opportunity. The pitch so flush with vegetation, woodland creatures have taken residence. The outfield damp, as a cold drizzle descends occasionally on biting winds. And while the local bowlers - all tall and strapping - are lithe and powerful in their warm-up overs on the practice pitches, Sri Lanka batters swaddled in woollen sweaters face throwdowns, bearing the air of soon-to-be human sacrifices on an altar of seam bowling.
Win the toss. Put Sri Lanka in. Watch the ball leap gleefully off bat edges into a pair of hands in the slip cordon, batter after batter clunking off like marionettes, the scoreboard showing 45 for 3, then 67 for 5, tail-end swipes pushing the total just beyond 100. Here are the familiar beats of a day one story for Sri Lanka at a ground such as Hagley Oval.
Last time they were here, they didn't have to bat first, but were nevertheless 104 all out. The previous time, they had the likes of Kumar Sangakkara in the XI, and were blitzed for 138. Barring second-innings near-miracles, which Sri Lanka do occasionally produce, these are match-defining mires. (And then New Zealand will go out to bat and put on half a million for six, wearing polite smiles that serve only to underscore the incompetence that had preceded.)
And then, this. Four years after they had last played a Test in New Zealand (megaspanked by 423 runs, at this very venue), here was a day of astoundingly non-trash batting. Of gloriously semi-decent defensive play, of gobsmackingly okayish technique. Had Sri Lanka's batters done the work to figure out the whereabouts of their off stump before they started a Test on foreign soil? The mere thought should bring a tear of pure pride to the eyes of any Sri Lanka fan.
Kusal Mendis, perhaps the form man in the XI, led the way. Key to his 87 off 83 was his judgment of length on a somewhat bouncy surface. When it was on a good length, he defended close to his body, almost always with soft hands, so that on the occasions the ball seamed and took the edge, the ball bounced short of the slips. Mostly, though, he defended inside the line, using his bat largely as an obstacle to deliveries that might pin him in front of the stumps, or sneak through to the wickets.
When New Zealand's bowlers bowled fuller, pressing hard for that catchable edge, Mendis committed fully to his front-foot strokes, sometimes driving imperiously, other times sending it squirting off the face of the bat through backward point, otherwise flicking deliciously off his pads.
He hit 50 off 40 balls, as New Zealand's bowlers had a modest morning themselves - 44 of those runs coming in boundaries. He and Dimuth Karunaratne, who was equally compact, but less aggressive against the hittable deliveries, put on a 137-run second-wicket partnership that formed the bedrock of Sri Lanka's day-one progress. They would get out in successive overs, but their departure was unusually followed by further batting competence.
Angelo Mathews waited for the shorter deliveries, scoring 38 of his 47 runs through the leg side, having also clipped a couple of boundaries off his pads. Dinesh Chandimal preferred the off side, hitting each of his six boundaries in that direction. Dhananjaya de Silva manufactured boundaries wherever he could, as he batted in the company of Kasun Rajitha towards the end of the day.
Their scoring areas were diverse, but almost all of Sri Lanka's top-seven batters covered the stumps, declined to lunge at balls until they were set, were unperturbed by the deliveries that beat their bats, and did not follow seaming balls outside their stumps. Collectively, they refused to collapse even in the face of probing bowling (mostly from Tim Southee and Matt Henry), as they often have in seaming conditions.
Given the long tail, and the lack of experience in Sri Lanka's attack (which New Zealand are very capable of exploiting), 305 for 6 is not an outstanding first-day score. New Zealand may well go on to dominate the match. But under the circumstances, Sri Lanka were passable. And you do not often say that of a Sri Lanka side on day one in New Zealand.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf