Sangakkara’s ton in vain

New Zealand limped to victory on the third afternoon of a low-scoring first Test against Sri Lanka in Christchurch today, winning by five wickets despite one of the most remarkable solo batting efforts in Test cricket by Kumar Sangakkara, whose unbeaten century outshone the efforts of every other batsman on both sides and proved that the pitch was not a good excuse for the low scores by everyone else.

Resuming on 63 with the team score at 125-8, Sangakkara batted brilliantly with the tail, taking most of the strike and protecting his partners with a single from the second last or last ball of every over. However, the New Zealand bowling when they did get a chance to bowl at Lasith Malinga and later Muttiah Muralitharan was poor, with very few balls threatening the batsmen’s stumps and as a result they were able to survive with little difficulty.

New Zealand would have been hoping to take the last two wickets in the first half an hour of play and without conceding more than twenty or so more runs, but Sangakkara had other ideas. In partnerships of 44 and 37 with Malinga and Muralitharan respectively, with Malinga and Muralitharan themselves scoring 0 and 8, he played beautifully in moving into the seventies, eighties and then nineties. He then took a single to bring up a fabulous century, but when Muralitharan left his crease prematurely to congratulate his team-mate he found himself controversially run out and the innings came to a close with the score at 170.

Set a target of 119 to win, New Zealand got off to the best start in a Test innings in quite some time, perhaps since the retirement of Mark Richardson. Craig Cumming and Jamie How, although they had some luck early in their innings, put on 58 for the first wicket before How was out LBW for the second time in the match. Cumming secured his place as a New Zealand Test opener in this match, backing up his first innings 43 with the same score in much less time in the second, playing some excellent shots to and over the boundary in his 57-ball knock.

But then, like in the first innings when New Zealand lost four wickets for seven runs, the collapse came. This time it was four for ten runs, with How’s wicket being followed by Cumming and Stephen Fleming with the score on 66 and then Mathew Sinclair two runs later. In a precarious position only half-way to their target and with almost half their side bowled out, New Zealand were desperate for a partnership, and it came in the form of Nathan Astle and Jacob Oram. Astle, whose Test form has been under some scrutiny in recent times, decided the best way to find some form was to hit his way out of his slump. The victim of this approach was Malinga, who went for 35 from his four overs including eleven from just one. Oram at the other end played a good supporting role, and the two made it to the tea break at 102-4, 17 runs short of their target.

In the first over after the break Murali did what he does best in providing a wicket just when Sri Lanka needed it most, removing the dangerous Astle for 24 and giving the visitors the faintest glimmer of hope. Brendon McCullum extinguished that as soon as it appeared though, hitting a big six off Murali to get off the mark and move the number of runs needed down to 10, then followed it up with a couple of fours to put an end to the match.

It was a match dominated by excellent bowling and marred by poor batting, a match that was fairly evenly fought, but in the end the New Zealand bowlers were slightly better and their batting slightly less poor, and they deserved their five-wicket win. Sri Lanka meanwhile will be happy with the fact that they fought back from seeing New Zealand 58-0 chasing 119 to take five wickets before they reached the target, and should be an improved side when they take the field aiming to tie the series in the second and final Test, starting at Wellington’s Basin Reserve on Friday.

Sri Lanka 154
Chamara Kapugedera 37, Upul Tharanga 33
James Franklin 3-30, Shane Bond 3-43

New Zealand 206
Daniel Vettori 63, Stephen Fleming 48
Muttiah Muralitharan 4-65, Chaminda Vaas 3-49

Sri Lanka 170
Kumar Sangakkara 100 no, Upul Tharanga 24
Shane Bond 4-63, James Franklin 2-34

New Zealand 119-5
Craig Cumming 43, Nathan Astle 24
Muttiah Muralitharan 3-34, Chaminda Vaas 2-33

New Zealand won by 5 wickets.

Cricket Web Player of the Match – Kumar Sangakkara (100 not out)

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