HAMBANTOTA - New Zealand's limited-overs tour of Sri Lanka is the last international cricket in the country for 12 months, but even so, the series has yet to stoke widespread interest, thanks in part to the big political event in Colombo. The Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting has displaced this series into the outstations, but as a weakened, weathered New Zealand seek to overcome substantial odds, perhaps they will be glad the spin-friendly Premadasa track is not on the itinerary. ??

They may also be buoyed by the track record of the Hambantota surface, where they will play their first match. Sri Lanka have not yet completely come to grips with conditions there, and as seam bowlers Adam Milne and Andrew Ellis may remember, the harder, faster attributes of that pitch can put the hosts at unease. Combine the unique surface with the unpredictability caused by the strong gusts that blow through the stadium most evenings, and Hambantota shapes as the most likely venue for an upset out of any Sri Lankan ODI ground.

Without three of their top batsmen, though, New Zealand must feel their success in the series will likely rest on the efficacy of the attack. Sri Lanka's batting seems more settled, but Dinesh Chandimal and Lahiru Thirimanne are still far from making their middle-order spots their own, and the second opener's position is up for grabs.

Although it is often said early wickets against Sri Lanka are more valuable than good starts against other teams, opponents often underestimate the difficulty of removing Sri Lanka's three senior batsmen from the crease. It is a rare match in which Tillakaratne Dilshan, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara all fail, but perhaps New Zealand will be buoyed by the thought that on the odd occasions when they do, Sri Lanka rarely manage a fighting total.

The other great challenge for the visitors will be that bugbear of all non-Asian teams in the subcontinent, a problem that is magnified in Sri Lanka. Ajantha Mendis excels against batsmen who have not played him, and this New Zealand line-up is packed with fresh meat. Sachithra Senanayake possesses fewer variations, but nevertheless, requires substantial decoding, and even Dilshan's offspin has grown increasingly menacing in recent series.

Rain may prove the definitive factor in this match, with Hambantota's forecast suggesting storms could interrupt play in the afternoon - even if predictions for this part of the country are notoriously unreliable. During last year's November series between these teams, the side bowling second were at a significant disadvantage in rain-affected matches, as they had to contend with a wet ball. If the skies seem heavy, perhaps captains will be tempted to bowl first, despite the state of the pitch.

Kusal Perera's poor run as opener ended with him being dropped in the West Indies, but he is in the reckoning again - only he has to fight off a challenge from Dimuth Karunaratne, who has a far heftier List A and first-class record in the past few months. Karunaratne is the favourite to play in the first match, having opened for the Board XI in the practice matches this week. New Zealand have several choices to make, and it is difficult to discern which direction they will swing. Andrew Ellis, Luke Ronchi and Neil Broome have not proved consistent at international level, but perhaps when so much inexperience abounds in the squad, they may force one or two younger players out of the XI, simply by the weight of their domestic records.


SRI LANKA: Tillakaratne Dilshan, Dimuth Karunaratne, Kumar Sangakkara (wk), Mahela Jayawardene, Lahiru Thirimanne, Dinesh Chandimal, Angelo Mathews (capt), Nuwan Kulasekara, Thisara Perera, Sachithra Senanayake, Lasith Malinga, Ajantha Mendis.

NEW ZEALAND: Anton Devcich, Hamish Rutherford, Grant Elliott, Tom Latham, Colin Munro, Andrew Ellis, Corey Anderson, Luke Ronchi (wk), James Neesham, Nathan McCullum, Kyle Mills (capt), Adam Milne,  Mitchell McClenaghan.