Ross Taylor’s counter-punching innings kept New Zealand alive at the end of a strange day for the visitors, who seemed in control for the most part, except the periods immediately preceding the breaks. Offspinner Akila Dananjaya was responsible for that, taking all five of New Zealand’s wickets to fall on the day over two mini-collapses before lunch and tea. A third such passage before stumps was not available as heavy rain meant play was called off shortly after tea, meaning 22 overs were lost.
Taylor’s attack and his century stand with Henry Nicholls came after New Zealand’s first-session collapse – 64 for 0 to 71 for 3 – and seemed to have evened out the match, before Akila returned to complete a five-for, trapping both Nicholls and BJ Watling in front as they looked to go across the line in the last 15 minutes of the session.
Taylor’s proactiveness and Nicholls’ solidity against spin asked questions of Sri Lanka all through the middle session, and the answers were of a less dramatic variety than had been in the morning session when they showed discipline against the top order. Taylor’s intentions to attack was clear straight into the session, as he looked on edge attempting to force shots against an all-spin strategy. Leading edges, miscued chips, and bat-pad affairs after stepping out were all brought out mere overs into the session, but Taylor’s gamble paid off. When he finally met a Lasith Emuldeniya delivery at the pitch and drilled it past the bowler for four, Sri Lanka lapsed immediately on to the defensive. Long-on went out, as did midwicket, and mid-off was forced deeper too. Even for Nicholls, singles were suddenly on easy offer.
Soon, Akila was out of the attack and a scoring rate of just over 2.3 in the first session was steadily outdone with a session rate closer to 3.5, with hardly any risks needed after the initial few.
Captain Dimuth Karunaratne’s defensive ploy especially affected Embuldeniya, who was clearly frazzled by Taylor. The left-arm spinner wasn’t allowed to toss the ball up and settled into hitting the back of the length with a flatter trajectory, a method Akila had shown wasn’t feasible on this pitch during the morning session. The pressure grew even further, with Akila’s spell lasting only five overs, effectively placing the burden of controlling the run-scoring on a 22-year-old in his third Test, with even the slightly more seasoned bowling of Dhananjaya de Silva neutralised.
And yet, things could have been completely different had Karunaratne managed to get a proper throw in from extra cover in the 47th over. Nicholls had tapped one to his left and taken off for a run that Taylor was hesitant to go for. The momentary doubt was enough for Sri Lanka to have at least a few yards’ worth of time to run him out, but the ball seemingly stuck in Karunaratne’s hand and his throw at the striker’s end was too wide for Niroshan Dickwella to do anything with. The pair had just gone past 50 for the fourth wicket at the time.
The seamers came back in late in the session, and there was movement on offer. But their probing spells weren’t well supported by the spinners at the other end, or the open fields.
But the very next ball after pulling the first ball of Akila’s new spell for four, Nicholls looked to sweep a full ball from middle stump. It was his most productive shot on the day, but he was, perhaps, undone by the change in trajectory from Embuldeniya that the offspinner brought.
Then, in the last over of the session, the usually composed Watling made an error in judgement, first with the length and then with the shot selection. He was back to a length ball, and looking to pull a delivery that should have been defended.
In many ways, the Taylor-Nicholls stand was as assured as that of Jeet Raval and Tom Latham’s for the opening wicket. The pair had found a nice pattern of old-fashioned Test cricket that matched Sri Lanka’s discipline in the first hour of the day. But on a pitch that had begun turning big inside ten overs, Akila figured his way to first squaring Latham up and then slowing the ball down to induce a soft shot from Williamson. The pressure got even Raval, who had been solid all morning, to slip chase a googly outside off stump.
Akila was the most effective of Sri Lanka’s three spinners throughout the day, having taken a few overs to find the right pace to extract turn on the pitch. By shifting to the right end in the morning session, and with speeds close to 75kph, he caused trouble with prodigious turn away from both right- and left-handed batsmen. And while the wickets in the morning session were built on getting the batsmen to offer straighter bats and hence two edges, the wicket of Nicholls came when the batsman chose to sweep. And as Raval had gone away from character, so did Watling in the afternoon. With the pressure he had been applying all day, it was a wonder Akila bowled only seven overs in the middle session.
He did begin proceedings in the final session, but that lasted merely five overs, having begun 15 minutes late because of a rain scare at the stroke of tea.—Agencies