WELLINGTON: Wicketkeeper Kusal Perera’s shock suspension after failing a drugs test has left Sri Lanka reeling ahead of the two-Test series against New Zealand starting in Dunedin on Thursday.
After Dhammika Prasad’s series-ending back injury, it was the second damaging blow for Angelo Mathews’ new-look side in what was always going to be an uphill battle in testing New Zealand conditions.
Perera, 25, one of Sri Lanka’s new brigade following the retirements of several stars including Kumar Sangakkara, was sent home on Monday after returning a positive result to a banned steroid from a random test during their recent series against Pakistan.
He is the second Sri Lankan international to fail a dope test following batsman Upul Tharanga’s suspension for three months after testing positive during the 2011 World Cup.
The loss of the three-Test keeper follows the back injury suffered by leading fast bowler Prasad in a warm-up match against a modest New Zealand Board President’s XI.
It was not the hit-out the tourists were hoping for with Dimuth Karunaratne’s 93 in the first innings, backed by 63 from Udara Jayasundara and 61 from Kithuruwan Vithanage in the second, the only scores of note.
The Sri Lankan batsmen can expect no mercy when the first Test starts at Dunedin’s University Oval on Thursday with New Zealand coach Mike Hesson ordering green, seaming pitches to suit his pace attack.
New Zealand are at their best playing at home, which Sri Lanka learned the hard way 12 months ago when bowling spearheads Tim Southee and Trent Boult took 22 wickets between them as the Black Caps completed a 2-0 series whitewash.
Mathews’ side return a year later, still in a rebuilding phase, to face a settled New Zealand line-up looking for a confidence boost after losing their recent away series defeat to Australia.
The Brendon McCullum-led New Zealanders are brimming with confidence in home conditions where they have not lost a Test nor a series since going down 0-1 when South Africa visited in 2011-12.
They are also a team that played better than the 0-2 scoreline in Australia last month would indicate.
“We are back in conditions we are familiar with and grounds we are familiar with and hopefully we can show the high standards we have shown over the last couple of years,” said Southee Tuesday.
“It’s typical Dunedin weather. We find it cold so I’m sure the Sri Lankans will find it even worse.”
In Australia, only opener Martin Guptill and off-spinner Mark Craig failed to shine but Hesson is prepared to keep faith with the out-of-form pair.
“Mark and Martin didn’t perform to the level they would have liked over in Australia, but both have shown in the past what they’re capable of and we’re confident they’ll make valuable contributions in the upcoming series,” he said.
“We think it’s a strong squad, but equally we’ve got a group of players on the fringe of selection who are ready to be called upon if necessary.”
Guptill aside, New Zealand are strong at the top of the order led by the impressive Kane Williamson who has averaged 89.90 in the past 12 months.
Ross Taylor has averaged 52 in the same period including a 290 against Australia while McCullum, as he showed with his 195 in the first Test against Sri Lanka a year ago, can destroy any attack once he gets going.
With New Zealand’s two leading all-rounders, Corey Anderson and Jimmy Neesham, sidelined by injury, left-arm seamer Neil Wagner, who was not required in the Australia Tests, has had his chances of a start boosted by Hesson’s call for green tops.
“I think our pitches need to be green to keep pace in them with the clay we use,” said Hesson.
“If we go in with something that looks a bit dry then it tends to turn into a bit of a dead duck. We certainly like to keep the game moving with a wicket that’s got a bit of pace and bounce.”