Galle, Aug 13: New Zealand have a chance of securing the top spot in Test cricket when they take on Sri Lanka in a two-match series from Wednesday (August 14), exactly a month after their cruel World Cup defeat to England.
New Zealand, with 109 points in Test cricket, are ranked behind India on 113 points, but a 2-0 series win in Sri Lanka will see the Kiwis leapfrog the Asian heavyweights. Test rankings have added relevance with the new, two-year ICC World Test Championship now under way, culminating in a 2021 final at Lord's between the top two teams.
Crisis-ridden Sri Lanka will be wary of providing a rank turning wicket in the first Test in Galle after being outsmarted by England in the most recent encounter at the venue. England overcame the battle with a variety of off-, leg- and left-arm spin as the trio of Moeen Ali, Adil Rashid and Jack Leach played a key role in a 3-0 series sweep.
The Kiwis too are carrying plenty of spin options and are likely to play two of them. Bombay-born left-arm spinner Ajaz Patel claimed five wickets in the warm-up game in Negombo and he is likely to be the second spinner to leggie Todd Astle.
Although seam is New Zealand's strength, they are likely to stick to two seamers with all-rounder Colin de Grandhomme coming in as the third option. Trent Boult will be the number one pick while they will have to make a call between Tim Southee and Neil Wagner, possibly the latter, who picked up nine wickets in New Zealand's last Test match. But the hosts will be no pushover, as they showed by winning their recent 2-0 series in South Africa -- becoming the first Asian nation to do so.
"They are a strong team. They will come into this series with lot of confidence behind them after what happened in South Africa," said New Zealand coach Gary Stead.
But Sri Lanka have some tough choices, and in all departments. The hosts have dumped head coach Chandika Hathurusingha halfway through his three-year tenure, with former fast bowler Rumesh Ratnayake now filling in on an interim basis.
When they trounced South Africa five months ago, rookie Oshada Fernando played a key role posting an unbeaten 75 in Port Elizabeth in what was his second Test match. He became an instant hero and his subsequent snubbing from the World Cup squad earned the wrath of former players.
There will be more disappointment as Fernando, one of the brightest prospects to emerge in recent times, is set to miss both Tests with the return of Angelo Mathews, who was injured for South Africa.
"New Zealand will be tough to beat. We have got guys who were not part of the series in South Africa, so we have got to make some tough calls," said Sri Lanka skipper Dimuth Karunaratne.
Former captain Dinesh Chandimal, who also missed out on touring South Africa, is back in the squad and the wicketkeeper's slot will be a toss up between him and Niroshan Dickwella. Lahiru Kumara, another player who didn't go to South Africa, will be Sri Lanka's lead fast bowler and it remains to be seen with whom he will share the new ball.
Both Suranga Lakmal and Vishwa Fernando were main architects during the win in South Africa.
Squads (from): New Zealand: Kane Williamson (captain), Jeet Raval, Ross Taylor, Colin de Grandhomme, Todd Astle, William Somerville, Mitchell Santner, Tom Blundell, Tom Latham, Henry Nicholls, B J Watling, Trent Boult, Tim Southee, Ajaz Patel, Neil Wagner.
Sri Lanka: Dimuth Karunaratne (captain), Dinesh Chandimal, Lahiru Thirimanne, Oshada Fernando, Angelo Mathews, Dhananjaya de Silva, Kusal Mendis, Kusal Perera, Niroshan Dickwella, Akila Dananjaya, Lasith Embuldeniya, Lakshan Sandakan, Suranga Lakmal, Lahiru Kumara, Vishwa Fernando.
Umpire: Michael Gough and Richard Illingworth (England)
Third umpire: Bruce Oxenford (Australia)
Match referee: Andy Pycroft (Zimbabwe).