The second Test drifted towards stalemate on the fourth day after another gritty marathon from Hashan Tillakaratne. Both sides had opportunities to push for a series-clinching win but neither was willing to grasp the initiative, preferring instead to wait patiently for the other to slip up. If the day provided further evidence of the propensity of two-Test series to produce drab cricket, it also betrayed the lack of positive ambition of the two sides.
Sri Lanka were particularly reluctant to force the pace, content to first rule out the possibility of defeat as they inched warily towards New Zealand's 305 first innings score. The strategy changed at the tea interval after it became clear that Marvan Atapattu, who had spent most of the morning trying to sleep of the concussion sustained during his collision with Daniel Vettori yesterday, would not be able to continue batting. But by then the opportunity to put pressure on the visitors had been missed after a dreary afternoon session that yielded just 72 runs in 28 overs.
When they were finally dismissed for 298, shortly after tea, there were 33 overs scheduled for the remainder of the day. New Zealand's openers, Mark Richardson and Matt Horne, squashed hopes of a spectacular capitulation, batting positively during a 65-run stand for the first wicket. Although Matt Horne was prised out for 27 by Muralitharan - caught at forward short leg - Mark Richardson batted positively for his unbeaten 51 and New Zealand were comfortably placed on 92 for 1 at the close. Barring a sensational final day, a draw is inevitable.
Tillakaratne was never expected to take risks. As a batsman he places a high price on his wicket and as a captain he is overly wary of losing. His first priority today was to ensure that Sri Lanka could not lose. He achieved that objective, steering Sri Lanka past the 156-run follow-on target in the morning - revised because the first day was washed out and this became a four-day game.
New Zealand too contributed to the drudgery. Immediately after lunch, Paul Wiseman, who had extracted dangerous bounce and turn from the flaking surface to pick up 4 for 104 in the innings, was asked to bowl over the wicket at Tillakaratne's leg stump. A fielder patrolled the point boundary, blocking off Tillakaratne's favourite run-scoring area against the slow bowlers. If Stephen Fleming was trying to frustrate the batsman into indiscretion, he was testing the wrong man. Tillakaratne plodded on.
He scored just 27 runs in the middle session before trying to make a dash for his third successive test century after the decision had been made to declare or score quickly in the 10 overs after the break. However, although he found the boundary on four occasions during that short session, he missed out on his hundred as he chopped an off-break from Wiseman onto his stumps. Tillakaratne batted five-and-a-half hours for his 232-ball 93, hitting 12 boundaries in all. Earlier, Sri Lanka lost Sanath Jayasuriya, Romesh Kaluwitharana and Kumar Dharmasena during an extended first session.
Jayasuriya was on course for his 11th Test century having started the morning with a flurry of boundaries. Both Daryl Tuffey and Shane Bond were smashed through the off side before Fleming turned to the offbreaks of Wiseman - New Zealand's only spinner in the absence of Vettori, who was hobbling around on crutches with a badly swollen left ankle.
Jayasuriya, playing defensively, edged an offbreak that turned sharply into the hands of Fleming at slip - a regulation chance (126 for 3). He had scored 82 from 110 balls and his innings contained a high percentage of boundaries - 14 in all.
Kaluwitharana came to the crease and announced his positive intentions with a sizzling pull in front of square. However, that didn't prevent New Zealand's tall pace bowlers from testing him. Famously impulsive, Kaluwitharana couldn't resist hooking a quick shoulder-high bouncer from Bond and was pouched in the deep off a top edge (169 for 4).
Minutes before the lunch break, the initiative bent further towards New Zealand as Wiseman claimed his second victim of the morning. Dharmasena was surprised by some extra bounce and gloved a catch to Fleming at a well-positioned leg slip (189 for 5).
After the break, Kaushal ived more dangerously before being was well-caught for 20 by a diving Tuffey. Chaminda Vaas was also positive, cracking four boundaries in his 22 before being bowled by Jacob Oram, but the crowd but the crowd only really came to life when Atapattu, made his unexpected entrance. Cheered and clapped all the way to the middle, like a soldier returning from battle, his stay was shortlived as he complained of dizziness and retired hurt.