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Cricket: Test failure could shape future

Perhaps it is an exercise in hyperbole but the second cricket test against Sri Lanka, starting tonight in Colombo, could be career-defining for a number of the New Zealand XI.

Yet, to many who follow the sport here, it seems few players - Jesse Ryder, Mark Gillespie, BJ Watling and Dean Brownlie being possible exceptions - could justifiably replace the incumbents. So what have the current players got to fear?

The biggest fear is public apathy. The capitulation on the third day of the first test last week was the sort of sporting performance which could see a slick lawyer lay a complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under the "good taste and decency" sub-clause or mount a case via the Consumer Guarantees Act that more than one test in the last five should have at least gone into the fifth day for viewer value. A repeat of Galle would see another flash mob of thumbs hit the big red button on their television remotes.

This test will show whether New Zealand's best players have the mental fortitude to sustain a performance against a side which has had their measure for years. New Zealand last beat Sri Lanka in a test almost six years ago, or, if you're generous, they've had two wins in 14 years.

Perhaps this week's motivational acronym should be "SPF" in tribute to Stephen Paul Fleming's epic first innings 274 not out over almost 11 hours at the same ground in 2003.

None of the current squad were in that XI but it must resonate with what they're aiming for. That was also the last drawn test at the venue. The seven tests since have all borne results, five of which were in the hosts' favour.

Few incumbents in the New Zealand XI could consider themselves exonerated from scrutiny tonight. Tim Southee and Trent Boult might be exceptions after their first innings work with the ball in Galle but both know the feel of the selectors' axe. For all others, it's an exam. Their time starts ... now.

Captain Ross Taylor has the most to gain from a strong performance. Sky Sport has shown regular footage this week of a delighted 23-year-old easing to his first test century in his fifth innings almost five years ago to help defeat England at Seddon Park. The joy on his face as he removes his helmet and raises his arms is palpable. He needs to channel his energy into recapturing the memory of that triumph and subsequently dissolving the questions over his leadership in the current mire.

For Brendon McCullum it's a chance to attack the situation. This is the sort of back-to-the-wall adventure on a far-flung foreign field he must've dreamed about growing up amid arguably the best cricket memorabilia collection in the country at the Albion club in Dunedin. He knuckled down in the first innings at Galle for 68 but got too exuberant in the second. McCullum only cops criticism because more is expected of his talents. This is a prime time for him to produce further proof.

Opening partner Martin Guptill needs to show the decision to send him to the Champions League with Auckland but rest for the limited overs component of this series was justified. It hasn't been thus far.

Kane Williamson must prove he is worthy of the prime No3 spot. His century to secure a test draw against South Africa in March was sublime but has started to dilute with just one score over 50 in his last 10 innings. Daniel Flynn needs to knuckle down with more of the same spine he showed in the first innings - and briefly in the second - at Galle. As for Franklin, if he makes the cut, this is almost certainly his last opportunity to impress, given he hasn't had a test 50 in 10 innings since March 2009.

Kruger van Wyk faces ongoing pressure from B-J Watling for the gloves, so no lack of motivation there. Jeetan Patel and Doug Bracewell know only top quality performances in Colombo will stave off the looming returns of Daniel Vettori and Mark Gillespie respectively when the squad is considered for South Africa.

December 12 marks the anniversary of the last memorable mark in New Zealand cricket history - the win over Australia at Hobart. They're due again.

- Herald on Sunday

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