<
>

New Zealand eye Test dominance amid Sri Lanka's theatre of the absurd

On the captaincy front, Sri Lanka and New Zealand could in some ways be no further apart Getty Images

Some teams are chartable. They are open to analysis. The spreadsheets make sense. The planning leads somewhere. Gains are built upon. Weaknesses are minimised. They may retain the capacity to surprise, but they are not, at their core, out to shock.

New Zealand is one of these. They've arrived in Sri Lanka with a plan. Having studied England's 3-0 Test series victory on the island last year, New Zealand have picked a squad that could push as many as three frontline fingerspinners into the playing XI in Galle. They also have a recent record that suggests they are one of the more reliable non-Asian teams in Asia, having defeated Pakistan 2-1 in the UAE last year, as well as having drawn a Test series in Sri Lanka on their most-recent visit, in 2012. There is plenty of experience in their batting order. And both Tim Southee and Trent Boult have delivered outstanding Test spells on the island.

Sri Lanka, meanwhile, are an acid trip in cricketing form. Incremental progress? Ha ha. What is that? Consistent selection? Get out of here with that nonsense. They are either a garbage heap festering away in the afternoon sun, as was the case on their Test tour of Australia earlier this year when they were smashed 2-0, and sacked and dropped their captain, and lost their entire fast-bowling attack to injury. Or they are a rapturous weeks-long party, as was the case in South Africa just after, when one of their most unreliable batsmen produced possibly the greatest Test innings of all time, before they went on to become the first Asian team to clinch a Test series in South Africa, whilst their coach was looking over his back wondering whether he was himself going to be fired, and a new captain was handed what had seemed to be the most abject of losing hands.

While Sri Lanka Cricket is now trying to find the legal means to rid itself of that coach - yes, the one who presided over one of their greatest series wins of all time in their most-recent Test outing - New Zealand have a coach in Gary Stead who has come up through their domestic system, has helped develop outstanding talent in Canterbury, and has begun to prove a worthy successor to Mike Hesson - another coach whose domestic experience in New Zealand proved valuable in his record-breaking run at the helm. Hathurusingha's Sri Lankan-ness, meanwhile, has essentially now become a stick to beat him with, as the Sri Lanka sports minister and board officials round on him for the size of his salary, which is an indignity no foreign coach had ever been subjected to.

On the captaincy front, Sri Lanka and New Zealand could in some ways be no further apart. Kane Williamson was groomed for leadership for years, and has been the unquestioned leader of the side since Brendon McCullum's retirement in early 2016. Dimuth Karunaratne, however, has been catapulted into the leadership of the Test team, rocket-launched into the ODI captaincy despite not having played ODIs for four years leading up to May 2019, and so far has done a decent enough job on both fronts to retain the mantle. Sri Lanka's is a captain who will understand that he could be disposed of as soon - and rapidly - as he arrived. In September last year, Angelo Mathews was ditched as ODI captain, then dumped from the team entirely. In February this year, Test captain Dinesh Chandimal suffered a near-identical fate.

To even label New Zealand the straight man and Sri Lanka the joker is to do injustice to Sri Lanka's raging mood swings. If these two sides were a comedic double act, Sri Lanka would dazzle on some evenings, the audience in stitches, tears spilling down their cheeks. On other nights, Sri Lanka would be in full-scale meltdown, setting the venue ablaze, sending paying customers to fiery graves. For this series, among their two best spinners (the players who will most define Tests in Sri Lanka) is an offspinner (Akila Dananjaya) who also bowls legbreaks and googlies, but over whom a cloud hangs right now because he's just come back from an elbow-flexion related suspension. The other is a left-arm spinner (Lasith Embuldeniya) who has played all of two Tests, and only bowled nine overs in one of those before he fractured a finger and played no part in the remainder of that game.

As both teams prepare for this series, they can be sure that the pitch in Galle will take substantial turn, and that the surface at the P Sara Oval for the second Test will give the seamers more bounce than virtually any other South Asian pitch. Beyond that, there is nothing about Sri Lanka's cricket right now that can be seriously analysed or prophesised about.

New Zealand are professional. They adapt better than arguably any team going around. Sri Lanka, meanwhile, are playing under an interim coach for the umpteenth time this decade. So, who can actually bloody work out what they will be like? It hurts your head to even try.