After taking 10 wickets on day three of the second test at the Basin Reserve, New Zealand will tomorrow need eight more to complete a potentially comprehensive victory.
The tourists will begin day four on 113-2, trailing by 303 runs, having been dismissed for 164 in their first innings.
Still leading by 416 following Kane Williamson and Henry Nicholls’ double-double, skipper Tim Southee had no hesitation in enforcing the follow-on, confident in finishing the job and earning a third straight win.
That would represent a satisfying conclusion to a test programme this summer that began with a drawn series in Pakistan before a heavy defeat by England extended to seven the Black Caps’ barren spell in the longest form.
Two thrilling triumphs in as many weeks snapped that streak and, while those matches swung wildly, they are now close to producing a complete performance.
New Zealand require a few more pieces of good cricket to achieve that aim, while Sri Lanka will be buoyed by a poor day-five forecast — and the knowledge of what happened the last time a team enforced the follow-on in Wellington.
The home side will need no reminding of the way England’s ascendancy evaporated during the Black Caps’ second turn with the bat last month, as they steadily clawed their way back into a match they would win by one run.
But aside from the venue and hosts, there weren’t enough similarities to give Southee much pause, considering England’s lead had been reduced to 226 when Ben Stokes made his decision.
“All the bowlers were pretty clear,” Matt Henry told Spark Sport. “You strip it back — what’s the best way for you to win the test match? I think it was a bit of a no-brainer for us, we were all feeling fresh and confident.”
Sri Lanka, meanwhile, can draw confidence from the memory of their last trip to the Basin Reserve in 2018.
Then, after a Tom Latham double-century had built a 296-run lead, the tourists batted for 115 overs to save the test, their resistance so strong that New Zealand’s bowlers failed to snare a single wicket on day four.
Kusal Mendis and Angelo Mathews were unbreakable, putting together a partnership of 274, and their obstinance was rewarded when rain washed out much of the final day.
Beginning together in the middle tomorrow? Mendis (50no) and Mathews (1no), hoping for an unlikely repeat of history.
Both men made runs in the first test, before combining for one in the first innings of the second. But the Black Caps will be optimistic their attack is balanced and rested enough to collect the eight wickets they require.
“There’s still a bit of up-and-down movement, and as a bowler you definitely feel like you’re in the game,” Henry said. “From a bowling group’s perspective, there’s still a lot for us to look forward to tomorrow.”
Importantly, the workload has been shared well by the five bowlers, each of whom struck today once Sri Lanka had resumed on 26-2. Southee wasted little time in removing nightwatchman Prabath Jayasuriya and Henry (3-44) then nicked out Mathews to reduce the tourists to 34-4.
Skipper Dimuth Karunaratne (89) mounted a lone hand as only two of his teammates reached double figures, undone by their own poor shot choice and the turn and bounce extracted by Michael Bracewell (3-50).
Bracewell, who also led a fine fielding performance, eventually induced Karunaratne into holing out, and the opener enjoyed only an over with his feet up as Southee made his call.
Karunaratne appeared as if he had never left while compiling his second half-century of the day but was soon again caught in the deep, giving Southee the second wicket after Doug Bracewell had snared his second of a comeback test.
That left Mendis and Mathews to survive until stumps — and left them plotting another great rearguard.
By Kris Shannon