New Zealand on top despite Karunaratne’s twin fifties

Sri Lanka 164 (Karunaratne 89, Chandimal 37, Henry 3-44, Michael Bracewell 3-50) and 113 for 2 (Karunaratne 51, Mendis 50, Southee 1-9) trail New Zealand 580 for 4 dec by 303 runs

New Zealand’s bowlers propelled their side to the brink of a 2-0 series whitewash over Sri Lanka, picking up ten wickets on the third day, forcing a follow-on and leaving the visitors still 303 runs behind with eight wickets and two days of cricket still to go.

At the crease for the visitors were Kusal Mendis, unbeaten on 50, and Angelo Mathews on 1 – the pair that had so memorably saved a Test at the same ground back in 2018. Back then they had batted out the entirety of the fourth day before rain intervened on the fifth to help secure the draw, and Sri Lanka will certainly be hoping history repeats itself – with rain forecast over the coming days.

But even the help of the weather gods might not be enough if Sri Lanka repeat their poor batting display from the third day.

While credit must go to New Zealand’s bowlers for sticking to their plans diligently and maximising the conditions on offer, Sri Lanka’s batters were undoubtedly guilty of far too often failing to put a price on their wickets.

While the nightwatcher Prabath Jayasuriya received a delivery he was far too ill-equipped to deal with, one that pitched on a length and seamed away taking his edge in the process, Mathews could have no such excuse, edging a similar – but wider – delivery when fending outside off. This left Sri Lanka four down for 34 with barely an hour played in the morning.

But that setback would be followed by a solid period of consolidation between Dimuth Karunaratne and Dinesh Chandimal, with the Sri Lakna captain, in particular, looking in good touch. He was patient with deliveries outside off, but not averse to punishing any that were overpitched. Together the pair would put on 80 for the fifth wicket, and the hope heading into lunch was that they could continue to make steady progress having already got in.

What followed though was Sri Lanka’s most inexcusable period of the entire series, losing their final six wickets for just 55 runs in the period between lunch and tea.

It was Chandimal that would trigger the capitulation. Having swept Michael Bracewell, who was finding some extra turn and bounce for his offbreaks, for four, Chandimal would charge him just a delivery later only to have the ball turn through bat and pad and offer Tom Blundell a straightforward stumping. A brain fade at the most ill-advised moment.

This was followed by Dhananjaya de Silva coming down the track and chipping an easy catch straight to short midwicket – put in place for precisely such a stroke – shortly after.

At 116 for 6, this would see Nishan Madushka, the debutant, enter. He would string together a 40-run stand with Karunaratne at the other end, who was continuing unfazed despite the chaos around him. In this period, Madushka even produced some stellar stroke play, especially when driving through the offside. But eventually he too would fall, courtesy of the extra bounce the pitch was more consistently producing, edging through to second slip.

After Kasun Rajitha was run out, Karunaratne’s patience would finally wear thin, uncharacteristically looking to beat the man in the deep, and holing out at long-off for a 188-ball 89. Last man Asitha Fernando would not last much longer either, as Sri Lanka were bowled out 164, with Matt Henry and Bracewell taking three wickets apiece.

With a 416-run lead, Tim Southee then had little hesitation in enforcing the follow-on, and back out came Karunaratne for his second essay a little over 10 minutes after he had been dismissed.

Sri Lanka’s second effort with the bat definitely fared better, but two wickets lost against the run of play may still come to haunt them.

Oshada Fernando, who’s had a tour to forget, ended up flicking one off his hips straight to square leg, but the wicket that will hurt the most is that of Karunaratne’s.

Having struck at a rate of 47.34 in the first innings, Karunaratne’s second outing ticked along at 61.44, showing a more proactive streak and an inclination to take on the New Zealand bowlers. Alongside a similarly positive Mendis, the pair frequently took on a splattering of short stuff served up by the seamers on an increasingly bouncy track.

It would be the relative comfort with which they handle pulling and cutting however that will likely grate Karunaratne as he looks back on his dismissal this evening, as it was an umpteenth short ball that he wound up top edging to deep midwicket. It having come after reaching his second fifty of the day would only have been salt in the wounds.

Mercifully for Sri Lanka, they would lose no further wickets, with Mathews especially happy to shut up shop during his 40-ball knock for just a solitary run, but the visitors will know they’ll need to do much better if they’re to survive the next two sessions, let alone the next two days.


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