Skippers to the fore

IN several respects the first Test between New Zealand and Sri Lanka at the quaint P. Saravanamuthu Stadium was a tale of two skippers. Stephen Fleming and Hashan Tillekeratne will remember the match for a long time.

IN several respects the first Test between New Zealand and Sri Lanka at the quaint P. Saravanamuthu Stadium was a tale of two skippers. Stephen Fleming and Hashan Tillekeratne will remember the match for a long time.

Stephen Fleming, the New Zealand skipper, acknowledges the cheers for his hundred. He went on and on to compile an unbeaten 274. — Pic. AFP-

Fleming's performance was truly inspirational with the Kiwi skipper being on the field for all but the first 45 minutes of the Test. Here is a leader of men who is growing in stature.

Fleming was well in sight of a triple century in the first innings, and when he decided to declare the innings closed, he was just 26 short of the mark. Had he carried on, he could well have become the first New Zealander to break the 300-run individual barrier in Tests.

Hashan Tillekeratne would be mighty pleased with his effort too. The reaction to this tenacious southpaw being elevated as the Test skipper had been a mixed one. There were some who felt that this senior citizen of the Lankan side, who is in the 30s, would not really be a long-term option.

However, the selectors felt that the inherent discipline in Tillekeratne's cricket, the price that he puts on his wicket, would rub off on the rest of the side as well. A respected cricketer, who never gives up on the field, Tillekeratne made a fighting 144, steering his side out of choppy waters.

The Lankans were certainly in trouble at 134 for four, in pursuit of New Zealand's first innings score of 515 for seven and the threat of a follow-on loomed large.

Tillekeratne made his runs under pressure, and the man who has been through a welter of emotions during his long career, had passed his first test as skipper as well. It was principally the left-hander's knock that enabled the host to wriggle out of a pressure situation.

Spells of rain, especially on day four when it ate up 48 overs, also played a role in the match finishing as a draw, but let's not take any credit away from the new Lankan Test captain. Tillekeratne may be here to stay in the new role.

After being dumped from the side for no fault of his, Tillekeratne made his comeback against India in the 2001 home series, and, after failing in the first Two Tests, and hanging on to his place in the eleven by the skin of his teeth, notched up a hundred in the series decider at the Sinhalese Sports Club Stadium. Even then it was clear that given his fitness levels and commitment, he would be around for a few more years.

Jayasuriya's desire to step down, following a rather unsatisfactory World Cup where the Lankans progressed without really inspiring confidence, had thrown Lankan cricket into a state of crisis.

Marvan Atapattu may have been the logical choice to take over, considering that Mahela Jayawardene, a player known for his shrewd cricketering brain, was going through a lean phase prior to the Test. And thrusting Kumara Sangakkara, another bright cricketer from the younger bunch in the side, into the top job so early in his career, was not favoured by the selectors.

So we had two Lankan captains, one for ODIs and another for the Tests, an unprecedented scenario in the emerald island's cricket history. Tillekeratne — who announced his retirement from the ODIs — and Atapattu would lead the side in Tests and one-day internationals respectively.

There were no such dramatic happenings in New Zealand's cricket. Fleming was firmly in the saddle in both forms of the game, and, though Nathan Astle and Chris Cairns, key men in the Kiwi batting line-up, would be absent, the New Zealanders were still likely to put up a fight, like they often do.

The first day's play at the P. Saravanamuthu Stadium served enough proof of this. Opener Matthew Horne was snared early by debutant paceman Prabhath Nissanka, but the Lankans had to endure a frustrating four and a half hours subsequently as the second wicket pair of Matthew Richardson and Fleming added 172.

Now, Richardson is a key man in the Kiwi scheme of things in Tests, where he can blunt the bowling, occupy the crease for long periods, and construct an innings. The opener might not be the most elegant of southpaws, but does get his basics right, playing close to his body, and within his limitations.

The fact that Fleming appeared in a determined mood at the other end meant that the threat from ace off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan would be met more than adequately. Murali, unlike most off-spinners, is more comfortable operating to the right-handers, where all his variations, including the one that goes through straight and the drifter, come into play.

Richardson was on way to his first century in the sub-continent when he was castled by left-arm seamer Chaminda Vaas' first delivery with the second new ball.

Fleming — driving, flicking and pulling with aplomb even while keeping the good deliveries out safely on a batsman-friendly pitch — reached his fifth Test hundred though, and he would go on from strength to strength on day two.

The Kiwi skipper may have been helped by shoddy Lankan catching — he was put down thrice, on two occasions by Jayawardene — but he also produced some exquisite strokes . The skipper strung together another valuable partnership — 157 for the fifth wicket — with a positive Scott Styris (63), which meant the Kiwis would end up with a mighty score.

Indeed, even as the Lankan bowlers and fielders suffered, the Kiwis went past the 500-run mark in the last session of the second day, the skipper piloting the innings himself. Essentially an on-side player, Fleming had executed some fine off-drives too in this innings, timing the ball well, finding the gaps.

Growing in confidence as he neared his double century, Fleming struck Muralitharan for six, and soon reached the landmark, pulling offie Kumara Dharmasena past the ropes. However, keeping the interests of his team in mind, he chose not to surpass Martin Crowe's 299 against the same opponent, made at Wellington 12 years ago.

The Kiwi captain's 274 not out had consumed 11 hours, and the innings was dotted with 28 boundaries and a six. A monumental effort it was from the skipper.

Fleming wanted to give his new ball bowlers a fling in the last 20 minutes of the day, and Darryl Tuffey did send the Kiwis into celebration, trapping Atapattu leg-before, a prize scalp.

The Lankans had plenty of hard work ahead of them on day three, and, after nightwatchman Vaas departed early, Jayasuriya and Kumara Sangakkara were involved in a 103-run partnership for the third wicket, before the former Lankan captain, who had just reached a half century, played on to a rising delivery from pace spearhead Shane Bond.

Sangakkara, who essayed some dashing strokes in his 67, studded with 14 fours, was looking good for more when he was prised out by off-spinner Paul Wiseman, and at this point, the Lankans were certainly in trouble.

However, Tillekeratne was in no mood to give in, and Jayawardene, who went through a horror run in the World Cup, showed glimpses of his touch and class. The Lankans fought back.

Jayawardene, using his feet to spinners Daniel Vettori and Wiseman, made a well deserved fifty, Tillekeratne, opened out with some expansive drives and flicks when the second new ball was taken by Fleming, and Sri Lanka finished at 267 for four, the fifth wicket pair raising 133 priceless runs.

Jayawardene fell early on the fourth day, snared by paceman Jacob Oram. However, battle-hardened wicket-keeper batsman Romesh Kaluwitharana, on a comeback trail, dismantled the Kiwi attack with some punishing strokes; Tillekeratne's contribution in the 107-run association for the sixth wicket was only 26. With the Lankan selectors deciding to play Sangakkara as a specialist batsman — his glovework was never really convincing — the decks were cleared for Kalu's inclusion in the eleven.

If Kaluwitharana's 90-ball 76 did not ensure that the Test would fail to produce a result, then the rain that lashed the ground half an hour before tea certainly did.

On the final day, Tillekeratne finished just six short of 150 as the Lankans were finally dismissed for 483. Soon, Fleming was back on the ground, opening the innings due to the hamstring injury sustained by Richardson. He remained not out yet again, his 69 eating up five hours.

In the process, Fleming finished with a match aggregate of 343, the most by a Kiwi batsman in a single Test, ending Martin Crowe's 12-year-old record of 329 made at Wellington; that effort too was at the expense of the Sri Lankans.

There were wickets at last for Muralitharan in the New Zealand second innings, and debutant leg-spinner Koushalya Lokuarachchi got into the picture too. He has quite a way to travel though.

Fleming walked back a satisfied man, his visage reflecting a sense of achievement, and the Lankans were quick to appreciate the Kiwi's marathon feat. Among them was Tillekeratne. This Test indeed was a tale of the two skippers.