In the previous Test played at Basin Reserve, a 352-run stand between Brendon McCullum and BJ Watling had turned the tables on India. Kumar Sangakkara and Dinesh Chandimal added 130 in this Test, a momentum-changing partnership that lifted Sri Lanka from a precarious position in their first innings. The two stands had been different in size, but similar in impact. Call it a new love affair between the sixth-wicket pairs and this ground, or dependability of No. 7s, but another stand could play a decisive role in the match.
New Zealand were tottering on 159 for 5, with a slender lead of 24, when BJ Watling joined Kane Williamson. In the first innings, the New Zealand lower order had succumbed tamely and with the Sri Lanka bowlers working well as a group, a repeat appeared likely. Watling did not do much to change that outlook as he picked three boundaries through gully early in his innings. But by the end of the day, he had added an obdurate 94 in 40.3 overs with Williamson, slowly building the lead past 100 to leave scope for drama later in the game.
Sri Lanka were wicketless in the last session, but on a pitch with a reputation of getting more batsmen friendly with time, they would still have their sights on a series-equalising win. Their seamers had bowled with discipline throughout the day, while Rangana Herath maintained the stranglehold. Nuwan Pradeep struck twice in two overs to remove both New Zealand openers after a solid stand had whittled the deficit to 60 runs, and added another to his tally – James Neesham – late in the second session.
There were no easy deliveries as Sri Lanka barged into the engine room of New Zealand’s batting – Williamson and Brendon McCullum – just before lunch. The two batsmen were watchful during a 43-run stand but managed to take toll of the odd loose delivery. However, a Dhammika Prasad delivery in the 47th over caught McCullum plumb in front, leaving Williamson with the job of marshalling the rest of the innings.
Williamson was solid in defence but used his feet well from time to time to provide a release from Herath’s grip. After McCullum’s departure, he added 37 with Neesham to help New Zealand take the lead in the 51st over. He did provide a couple of chances: Herath could not hold on to a difficult return chance when the batsman was on 29, while Pradeep dropped a sitter when he was on 60, a couple of overs before the new ball was taken. For a batsman who has grown in stature over the last couple of seasons, those could prove to be two chances too many.
At the age 24, the completeness in Williamson’s batting can be scary for bowlers. Still, today was not the day to dazzle, and so he buckled up and accumulated runs with deft touches. His half-century came off 117 deliveries and had only four hits to the boundary. By the end of the day, he had played 200 deliveries for an unbeaten 80 and had averted the threat of the new ball. The plan was to play a tight game, but he did play a delectable on-drive against the new ball as Pradeep went too straight.
Sri Lanka had to be patient, just like they had been in the morning. Hamish Rutherford and Tom Latham added 75 for the first wicket – their first 50-plus stand – but New Zealand lost three wickets for four runs after Rutherford walked into a trap. In the 27th over, Mathews removed a fielder from the slip cordon and placed him at a fine third-man position, in addition to a regular third man, and waited for a mistake. Pradeep, a bit quicker than the other two seamers, cramped the batsman by going round the stumps and surprised him with a couple of quick bouncers.
The third delivery was short too, but just wide enough to lure the batsman into a cut. Rutherford obliged and the thick edge carried straight to Dinesh Chandimal at the fine third man, sparking loud celebrations from the Sri Lanka fielders who knew the plan had worked to perfection. In Pradeep’s next over Latham, who had been more solid of the two openers, attempted his first expansive shot – a drive at an angling delivery – and immediately paid the price, edging it to the keeper.
As two new batsmen arrived at the crease, Pradeep and Herath ensured there were no easy runs. The sudden stop in scoring brought another wicket, this time to an excellent delivery from Herath. Taylor was beaten in flight as he pushed forward with his hands, only to see the ball turn just enough past the outside edge and graze the outside of off stump. From 75 for 0, New Zealand were 79 for 3.
Rutherford had been lucky in the second over of the morning. In trying to leave a back of length delivery from Prasad, he was unable to get the glove out of the way and edged it to the keeper. However, the umpire Steve Davis had called a front-foot no-ball immediately even though replays suggested Prasad had some part of his heel behind the line. Rutherford cut and drove through off to pick up four more boundaries and it appeared his long wait – 15 innings – for his second half-century was coming to an end. But, he fell after getting yet another start.