By Niall Anderson at the Basin Reserve
A blistering early bowling spell – and a smart tactical change – has put the Black Caps in a strong position as test cricket made its return to New Zealand shores.
Having chosen to bowl first on the opening day of their first test at the Basin Reserve against Sri Lanka, the Black Caps reduced the visitors to 275-9, with Tim Southee starring with 5-67.
Much like in their last series against Pakistan, the day ebbed and flowed, with wickets falling in clumps, and a big partnership denying any early rushes to judgement.
That partnership – a 133-run stand between Dimuth Karunaratne and Angelo Mathews – rescued Sri Lanka after they slumped to 9-3, and then a swashbuckling unbeaten 73 from Niroshan Dickwella gave them a total to bowl at, in conditions favourable to the seamers.
Ajaz Patel bowled just three overs for the Black Caps as Southee (25 overs), Trent Boult (26), Neil Wagner (20) and Colin de Grandhomme (13) shared the brunt of the bowling workload, with Southee by far the most productive.
The 30-year-old claimed three wickets in his first two overs, and did it with a superb mix of pitched-up bowling – removing Danushka Gunathilaka with an inswinger, and Dhananjaya de Silva with a beautiful outswinger.
When Kusal Mendis then threw his wicket away with a mindless swat to short mid-wicket, Southee had 3-2, and punters were already whispering about how long the test would last.
However, Sri Lanka still had one of their best batsmen in wait at number five, and Mathews quickly linked up with Karunaratne as the Black Caps' 20 minutes of magic turned into 220 minutes of toil.
The duo weren't afraid to play their shots, and while that led to some edges flying wide or short of despairing fielders, the resulting runs were vital for Sri Lanka to regain a foothold in the test.
"It was hard work, the ball was nipping around a bit, there was grass on the wicket and we're up against world-class bowlers," said Mathews.
"There were good balls and we had to leave and be positive. Once the sun was out, and the wicket dried, it started skidding through."
Karunaratne looked like he had thrown all his hard work away on 33 when he smacked a de Grandhomme full toss straight to mid-wicket, but as he went to walk off the park, the big screen showed the story – de Grandhomme had overstepped, and proof of the no-ball quickly ended the Black Caps' celebrations, and gave Karunaratne a second chance.
He cashed in, and after long stretches with four slips and a gully, the pitch started to offer less swing and seam movement, and bowlers started to struggle with their lines, as plenty of legside offerings went fine for four.
Black Caps captain Kane Williamson's response was to call upon the short stuff. Out went the slips and the field spread wide, and the Black Caps quicks tried to bait the visitors in hooking and pulling.
It was a tailor-made tactic for Wagner, and sure enough he claimed the key breakthrough before tea. Karunaratne went for one pull too many, but played through the shot too quickly and got a glove through to BJ Watling.
He departed for 79, and Southee then showed he was just as dangerous bowling short as he was full. Captain Dinesh Chandimal fell into the trap after tea and was caught at square leg, and Mathews' fighting 83 ended as Southee's fifth victim, after he was cramped for space and gloved a ball to Watling.
At 187-6 it looked primed for New Zealand to wrap up a dominant day, but some beautiful attacking innovation from Dickwella saw Sri Lanka fight back, before Boult claimed a deserved wicket with the final ball of the day, removing Kasun Rajitha.
The Black Caps still hold the edge, but after their horror start, Sri Lanka have fought well, and created an intriguing day two.