The Black Caps would have been feeling a horrible sense of déjà vu, but Ajaz Patel was in no mood for superstition.

Patel spun the visitors back into the first test against Sri Lanka in Galle, claiming a superb five-wicket bag after a familiar Sri Lankan pairing looked to take the match away from New Zealand.

The hosts were superbly poised at 143-2 in response to New Zealand's 249, with Kusal Mendis and Angelo Mathews threatening a repeat of their feats in Wellington in December. There, they batted for over an entire day, adding an unbroken 274 as the Black Caps bowlers had no answers to break their combination.

That was to save a test match, but today, it looked like they were about to put Sri Lanka in a winning position. The pair joined forces at 66-2, and batted comfortably for 24 overs, with Mendis bringing up a well-played 50.

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Then, a ball later, he departed, trying to drive Patel in the last over before tea, but getting an edge through to Ross Taylor at slip. Four balls after that, when play resumed after the break, Kusal Perera received a short ball from Trent Boult. He wasn't sure whether to play or leave, and eventually did neither, and the ball cannoned off his bat and straight to point.

A flurry of wickets followed, with Patel utilising some potent drift and dip to have the Sri Lankan batsmen fending and prodding. He was aided by some rash shots – Lahiru Thirimanne had earlier been stumped charging down the wicket, and Dhananjaya de Silva smashed a ball straight back at him – but by bowling excellent line and length for 18 straight overs, the spinner dragged the Black Caps back into contention.

When Will Somerville – who was loose early but improved as the day went on – removed Akila Dananjaya, Sri Lanka had lost five wickets for 18 runs, but an unbroken partnership of 66 between Suranga Lakmal and Niroshan Dickwella guided the hosts to stumps at 227-7 to leave the match well-poised.

While New Zealand will have some degree of comfort in the fact that pitches at Galle have proven historically hard to bat on in the fourth innings, they'll also be ruing a collapse early on day two which left Patel needing to fire in order to keep Sri Lanka in check.

Resuming at 203-5, Taylor loomed as the vital batsman for New Zealand, unbeaten on 86 and looking to guide the tail order to a competitive total.

So, when Taylor was dismissed on the first ball he faced, needlessly flaying at a short and wide delivery from Lakmal, what followed was rather expected, with the Black Caps going down in a slew of disastrous dismissals.

Mitchell Santner, the only semi-recognised batsman left after Taylor's early departure, tried to leave a Lakmal delivery only to be trapped lbw by an inswinger for 13. Tim Southee (14) hit his customary six before departing in comical style, wandering out of his crease in confusion during a shout for lbw and being stranded mid-pitch. Boult (18) also had a hit but was dismissed in limp fashion, picking out deep mid-on, and Patel lasted one ball.

After Dananjaya took all the New Zealand wickets to fall on day one, Lakmal claimed them all bar the runout on day two, finishing with 4-29 to put Sri Lanka in a strong position. The Black Caps lost their last seven wickets for 78, leaving quite the task for the bowlers to keep them in with a chance.

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Fortunately, Patel was up to the challenge.