Reminiscing Sri Lanka's first overseas win in New Zealand
The national cricket team is currently in New Zealand on a four week long tour. Tours to New Zealand bring back nostalgic memories. The Sri Lankans will play a three day warm-up game starting on Saturday at Napier's McLean Park and it was here they recorded their maiden Test win overseas 23 years ago.
Sri Lanka's first Test win at home in 1985 was marred by poor umpiring and Kapil Dev, the Indian captain, cursed that the country will never win a Test match away from home. It took Sri Lankans ten years to prove Kapil wrong.
There had been a couple of occasions where they had come agonizingly close to win a Test match overseas. But that win remained elusive until 1995.
New Zealand consists of two tiny islands. Major cricketing centers like Auckland, Wellington, Napier and Hamilton are in the north island while Christchurch, Dunedin and Queenstown are in south island.
It was this particular tour that helped Sri Lankan cricket to turn a corner and self confidence was instilled following the Napier win. Contrary to the popular belief that input from foreign coaches was instrumental in lifting the standards of the sport in the country, it must be mentioned here that the New Zealand victory was achieved under former fast bowler T.B. Khelgamuwa, who was the coach. The team was managed by Neil Perera. Both legends will be featured in our Legends segment shortly.
This was a series dominated by Chaminda Vaas both with bat and ball. Vaas averaged 41 with the bat and with the ball he was menacing with his 16 wickets in the two match series costing just 11 runs apiece. That included three five wicket hauls including a match bag of ten wickets in Sri Lanka's massive 241 run win in the first Test. It was the first time a Sri Lankan bowler had taken ten wickets in a game.
The Napier wicket was tailor made for New Zealand's seamers – Danny Morrison, Dion Nash and the six foot eight inches tall Kerry Walmsley. The surface had a solid cover of grass and 13 wickets fell for the seamers on day one as Sri Lanka were put into bat.
The hosts had miscalculated thinking that spin was the tourists main weapon. But the green surface played into the Sri Lankans hand as Vaas was on the money.
It was Vaas' first major contribution towards a Sri Lankan win and he would go onto stamp his authority as country's premier fast bowler for the next decade and half. Sadly, he didn't put much effort to his batting. A Test average of 24 and mere 13 half-centuries after 111 Tests makes ordinary reading for such an accomplished batsman.
Sri Lanka clinched the two match series 1-0 after the second Test in Dunedin was drawn to record their first series win away from home as well.
The series defeat was a huge wake up call for the Kiwis. They sacked captain Ken Rutherford. He was only 29 at that point and never played for New Zealand again.
The efforts of Vaas actually overshadowed those of debutant Chamara Dunusinghe. In the Napier Test, he contributed for seven dismissals, but more importantly he stitched a few crucial cameos with the tail in the second innings to post 91 which helped Sri Lanka to put the game out of New Zealand's equation with an improbable target of 427.
Ironically, it was batting that sealed Dunusinghe's fate. In mid 1990s, he was by far the most accomplished wicketkeeper in the country, but Romesh Kaluwitharana was bringing more into the table with his audacious stroke play and he was the preferred choice for nearly a decade.
In a way the Sri Lankans were lucky that Martin Crowe, New Zealand's premier batsman was not available for that series due to a knee injury.
Crowe had been sensational during Sri Lanka's previous visit to New Zealand in 1991 posting a career best 299 in the Wellington Test. Cricket can be a cruel game as he missed out on becoming the first Kiwi to score a triple hundred by a single run. He was spectacularly caught behind by Hashan Tillakaratne, who was keeping wickets in that game. Of all people, the dibbly dobbly medium pace of Arjuna Ranatunga accounted for the New Zealand legend.
For the upcoming two match series, the hosts will be favourites having just beaten Pakistan 2-1 in UAE.
The hosts' pace will test the Sri Lankans. But will New Zealand play into Sri Lanka's hands like they did in 1995? Kasun Rajitha, Lahiru Kumara and Dushmantha Chameera can all generate genuine pace. However, the Sri Lankan bowlers will have to put up with the marvelous Kane Williamson, the third ranked batsman in Test cricket.