Once when New Zealand played Sri Lanka, the pitter-patter of Muttiah Muralitharan towards the bowling crease would immobilise the country's finest batsmen. On the first day of the opening test in Galle, Rangana Herath showed why he is Sri Lanka's current spinning talisman, taking over from the world's highest wicket-taker.
The 34-year-old left-arm orthodox was the hosts most potent bowler. He finished with figures of five for 65, his 11th five-wicket bag in tests, to help restrict New Zealand to 221. Sri Lanka was nine for one in reply at stumps with Tim Southee trapping debutant Dimuth Karunaratne lbw for a duck.
Herath has taken 40 wickets at 23.47 in seven tests this year, despite a career average of 31.13 in 41 tests over 13 years. Initially he dismissed Brendon McCullum and Daniel Flynn, the two batsmen who revived the New Zealand innings from a point of collapse. He also struck James Franklin lbw for three off 43 balls, had Doug Bracewell caught for 12 and bowled Kruger van Wyk for 28.
Before Herath's resurgence, McCullum and Flynn mounted a 90-run fourth-wicket partnership of grit. They came together at 40 for three after just 50 balls of the match following the domino-type loss of Martin Guptill (11), Kane Williamson (0) and Ross Taylor (9).
At that point, the run rate was 4.80 but a "limited overs'' concentration span prevailed. McCullum and Flynn reverted to "test'' mode. They brought down the run rate but lifted New Zealand's confidence with surety in their defence to take the visitors to 80 for three at lunch. Their first 30 runs came from 15 overs.
Flynn was dismissed for 53 in the last over before tea, reaching his first half-century in 14 test innings. He came to the wicket in the ninth over. Patience and working the ball off his pads were his strongest attributes. Flynn eventually could not resist cutting a wider ball outside off stump and wicketkeeper Prasanna Jayawardene secured a reflex catch. Flynn's innings continued the form which saw him make 182 for Northern Districts against Otago in his last first class innings earlier this month but he couldn't sustain it long enough.
McCullum's 68 included an uncharacteristic strike rate of 54.40. He embroiled himself in a disciplined innings, punctuated by the odd boundary, generally square of the wicket. His restraint was squandered after clubbing a straight six off Herath. The Sri Lankan exacted revenge next ball, bamboozling the opener with a ball that drifted in and spun away to hit the top of off-stump. McCullum became just the sixth New Zealander to pass 4000 test runs during the opening session when he moved to 25 after pulling Herath for four.
Herath was the star but the rest of Sri Lanka's bowling attack showed tenacity. Pace bowlers Nuwan Kulasekara and Shaminda Eranga bowled with an upright seam that kept the New Zealanders cautious, despite only getting the ball through in the mid-130km/h range. Off-spinner Suraj Randiv was tidy, albeit lacking Herath's venom.
McCullum and Flynn generally showed authority against the spin and rotated the strike well - at least until Herath got the better of them.
The rest of New Zealand's top order could benefit from hanging a ball in a stocking from the washing line and practising playing line and length. They struggled to adapt to the test environment in the wake of a rain-affected one-day series.
Guptill floated a shot through the vacant fourth slip and refined his aim next ball by edging a catch to third slip after looking to drive. Tharanga Paranavitana juggled Williamson's second ball for a catch at first slip. The delivery wasn't threatening his stumps but he didn't get into line. Taylor drove away from his body and an inside edge cannoned into his off stump.
The TV coverage doubled as an advertisement for the Sri Lankan tourism board with shots outside the ground highlighting Galle's splendour. However, there seemed to be more locals lining up on the seashore to check out the fishing catch than on the ground's embankment in the shadow of Galle's 17th century fort.