Fading light cut New Zealand’s feisty middle-order short in Dambulla, as they pursued an unlikely 90 runs from the last eight overs with four wickets in hand. Their top order had earlier been bundled up by Rangana Herath and Sachithra Senanayake, who were finally given the chance to expose the visitors’ weakness against quality slow bowling. New Zealand were chasing 216 in 33 overs, and though Nathan McCullum and James Neesham had earned valuable momentum in their rapid 63-run stand, the teams left the field when dusk set in, and Sri Lanka were adjudged winners by 36 runs.
The match had initially been trimmed to 43-overs-a-side, before more rainfall halfway through Sri Lanka’s innings abbreviated it further. The scheduled 6pm finish, though, was wildly ambitious for a venue lacking adequate lighting, at this time of year. If light-meters had been the final word on play, the match might have stopped around New Zealand’s 21st over, but the umpires allowed the game to continue until they deemed it unsafe. Sri Lanka implored the officials to call it a day knowing they were ahead, and when it grew desperately dark, they eventually won out over New Zealand’s protests.
Tom Latham was the first to fall to Senanayake, missing an offbreak that would have hit middle and leg, in the bowler’s fourth over. Rangana Herath then arrived while the Powerplay was still in place and removed Grant Elliott, off an inside edge. Senanayake did Colin Munro in with a doosra, and by the time Herath picked up an out-of-sorts Rob Nicol, New Zealand had sunk to 26 for 5 in the 11th over. Luke Ronchi then made 23, but gave Herath his third scalp, before Neesham and McCullum joined forces.
The pair whacked 51 off the last four overs of their stand, though perhaps Sri Lanka were only one wicket away from breaking their momentum and securing the match. Thisara Perara had the chance to finish the more belligerent McCullum off, but spilled a sitter off Lasith Malinga at deep square leg, though perhaps the gloom contributed to the error.
Senanayake and Herath had been heroes with the bat too, as they plundered 27 from the last 11 balls, to lift Sri Lanka from a modest score to a middling 211 for 8. Rangana Herath struck four earnest, but unquestionably comical boundaries in his seven-ball stay, while Senanayake smeared an unbeaten 21 from his 14 balls.
That ninth wicket stand had helped pick up some of the middle order’s slack, after they had not provided sustained resistance, following a top-order stutter. Sri Lanka had been at 90 for no loss in the 15th over before losing four wickets in 23 balls.
New Zealand’s gains came during two overs – one belonging to McCullum and the other Mitchell McCleneghan. McCullum removed the flying Mahela Jayawardene and the in-form Kumar Sangakkara within the space of three deliveries, before three overs later, McClenaghan had Tillakaratne Dilshan and Angelo Mathews caught behind off successive balls.
Dilshan had eased into his most fluent innings of the series, which ironically was also his briefest. Full swinging balls from the quick men were stroked cleanly – often along the ground – to the boundary, on either side of the wicket. In the fifth over, Kyle Mills was whipped through cover twice and midwicket once, off consecutive balls.
Jayawardene had a mild start in comparison, after being pushed up to open, thanks to Dimuth Karunaratne’s omission, but he soon caught up when the spinners arrived, and was playing sublimely when he was a victim of his own ambition, trying to scoop McCullum’s second ball.
Thirimanne and Chandimal had earlier begun with a rare opportunity to construct an innings – a task well-suited to their accumulative abilities – but when the rain abbreviated the match further, they were forced to be finishers again – a task at which they failed once more. Thirimanne lobbed a Mills offcutter to mid-off, and Chandimal was trapped in front soon after by James Neesham.
Mills and Neesham extended a canny stretch of bowling replete with slower ones, cutters and at-the-body short deliveries for a few overs, dismissing Thisara Perera and Nuwan Kulasekara between them, until Herath and Senanayake produced their cameo – though 18 of their runs came in Andrew Ellis’ final over.