Three hundred runs, fifteen wickets. What a perfect distraction test cricket is. Well worth having to be lashed to the heater for half an hour on my return to My Life in Cricket Scorecards Towers so as to mitigate the effects of a day in the teeth of the southerly “breeze”, as we Wellingtonians choose to describe the blastfreezer wind that blights our lives.
The calendar said 3 January; the pitch said St Patrick’s Day. No surprise that Angelo Mathews put New Zealand in. The toss is in international cricket in New Zealand is a meaningless formality, like asking if anybody at a wedding knows any reason why the bride and groom should not be married. This is because Brendon McCullum is, in his own words, “a useless tosser”. He is Superman. He tosses a kryptonite coin.
Tom Latham looked by some way the more secure of New Zealand’s opening pair, yet he was first out, playing at a short ball from Lakmal that he could have left alone. Hamish Rutherford scored 37 from 53 balls, but every shot is the closing scene of a soap opera, leaving you not knowing what will happen next.
Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor took New Zealand through to lunch, the verdancy of the pitch threatening more than it delivered. Is it my imagination, or is Ross Taylor getting more square on? Once or twice there he reminded me, and not in a good way, of the great CJ Tavaré, who would get full-chested against bouncy bowling.
After lunch, it was as if New Zealand’s great year of 2014 had all been a dream. Taylor started it, playing on to Pradeep. That brought in Brendon McCullum, who had been given the keys to the city of Wellington by Mayor Celia Wade-Brown at lunchtime.
He was out first ball, swishing at Lakmal and playing on. I hesitate to say it, given McCullum’s current place at Richie McCaw’s right hand in the New Zealand sporting pantheon, but it was a God-awful shot to play first ball in a test match on a questionable surface.
Only 79 were added after that, and 26 of them were from proper shots by Bracewell and selected grotesqueness from Boult for the last wicket.
Sri Lanka certainly bowled better after lunch, pitching the ball up more and maintaining a stricter off-stump line, but the fact that New Zealand’s three best batsmen all played on (Williamson did so too) is evidence that the pitch was not trustworthy.
In years gone by, the fragile local sporting psyche would have been plunged into gloom by these events, but the recent run of success meant that there was keen anticipation between innings at the prospect of Boult and Southee exploiting the conditions.
The breakthrough came in the ninth over when Karunaratne edged Boult to third slip.
Kumar Sangakkara was next in. Test cricket transcends partisanship, and I was hoping to see a great batsmen make a century. That Sangakkara is a great batsman is beyond question. Only Bradman has made more double hundreds and only him, Pollock, Sutcliffe and Headley, of batsmen who have played more than 20 tests, have done so with a higher average (the admirable Allen McLaughlin of Radio Sport is to be acknowledged as the source of this information).
The Basin crowd rose to its feet for Sangakkara when he passed 12,000 runs in tests, a touching and uplifting moment.
At the other end, Silva became the fourth batsman today to play on, and with delightful quirkiness. His forward defensive sent the ball spinning into the air well above his head. He turned just in time to watch it fall on top of the bails. It was Conan Doyle’s Spedogue’s Drifter come to life.
That was Doug Bracewell’s first wicket on his return to the test team. He took two more before the close. Neil Wagner has reason to be disappointed to be dropped (not a term coaches use these days, but it’s the truth) after a good performance in Christchurch, but it shows how intense competition for places has become. “Depth” and “New Zealand cricket” may now be deployed in the same sentence for purposes other than satire.
So New Zealand won the day. But we may still be blessed with a Sangakkara century tomorrow.
And, did I mention? 1953 Wisden, $20 from the Museum at lunchtime. Perfect day.