The visitors won the toss and opted to bowl, firmly taking control of the morning session as Suranga Lakmal produced a bowling masterclass – with figures of 5-54 – to unsettle the Black Caps’ top order.
Jeet Raval, Tom Latham and Black Caps captain Kane Williamson all fell cheaply to Lakmal in a 16-over spell before he went on to claim his second career five-wicket haul.
New Zealand slipped to 64-6 before a 108-run partnership from BJ Watling and Southee rescued the innings, the Christchurch pitch proving a tough test with the bat.
Southee was eventually dismissed by Dilruwan Perera for 68 from 65 deliveries, Danushka Gunathilaka’s stunning catch turning things back in Sri Lanka’s favour as New Zealand were bowled out for 178 runs.
In reply, Southee’s batting heroics were followed by three quick Sri Lankan wickets to leave the tourists 21-3 before Angelo Mathews (27) and Roshen Silva (15) were left chasing a 90-run deficit going into day two on 88-4.
Southee thus became New Zealand’s third most successful bowler in Test cricket, moving past former team-mate Chris Martin.
In his 63rd Test, Southee bettered Martin’s mark of 233 with the wicket of Dinesh Chandimal. Sir Richard Hadlee is on top with 431 wickets from 86 Test matches, followed by Daniel Vettori who has 361 scalps in 112 games.
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