New Zealand were five wickets down for 94 and needed 151 more runs to make India bat again. They needed an effort that defied belief, and to an extent instinct.
Instinct is a powerful evolutionary force, and it controls you more than you can control it. Pure instinct makes a cornered dog attack in self-defence. Similarly, pure instinct makes a batsman like Brendon McCullum search for the big hits when a ball is dug in or pitched up.
For overwhelmingly long periods on Sunday, the New Zealand captain, playing with a sore shoulder and a dodgy back, resisted those instincts and the Indian fast bowlers. He may like to revise his assessment of calling his Auckland double century his finest in the game.
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The innings (unbeaten 114) that the Kiwi captain played today is not only his best, but merits a place alongside the very best of Bert Sutcliffe, Glenn Turner and Martin Crowe in the New Zealand Cricket Museum at the Basin Reserve. Irrespective of the result. It was perhaps then symbolic that the six he smacked off Ishant Sharma to bring up his century fell at the doorstep of that very museum.
When McCullum walked in to bat, New Zealand, needing 246 runs to avoid innings defeat, were 52 for three and in deep trouble. Zaheer Khan had taken two wickets in the morning session to swell his tally to three. The wily left-arm pacer, who didn’t have much success in the previous three innings, was at his sharpest.
Having accounted for Peter Fulton on Saturday evening, Zaheer gave India a massive early break when he removed the dangerous Kane Williamson off a delivery that shaped out a hint, just enough to take the outside edge of New Zealand’s most consistent batsman of this entire tour. Out-of-form opener Hamish Rutherford showed intent and played a few strokes but fell for 35, edging to the ‘keeper a delivery that pitched at length and moved away ever so slightly.
The masters of swing will tell you they don’t need the ball to do too much in air, just a little movement is enough. That’s the movement Zaheer was eliciting when McCullum came out to have his say. He was beaten off the second ball as he dangled the bat out to an outswinger, only to see it miss the outside edge. McCullum would give a couple of more chances. Most notably off Mohammed Shami, a few overs later.
Dhoni had placed Virat Kohli at silly mid-on for McCullum and asked Shami to bowl an off-and-middle line, inviting the batsman to drive. And he drove, uppishly too, but Kohli casually went for the catch with one hand and spilled the chance.
The last time McCullum had got a chance, he went on to make a double hundred. On Sunday, he would get another on 36, off a similar shot, a drive down the wicket, but Ishant Sharma wouldn’t hold on to it either.
In the meanwhile, at the other end, on either side of lunch, Tom Latham made way for Corey Anderson who in turn vacated it for the battling batsman, BJ Watling.
In the second session, Dhoni applied the choke, with six fielders on the on side, patiently laying in wait for McCullum to make another mistake. He wouldn’t.
The scorecard crawled. It was like the scene from The Hurt Locker, where the snipers waited with bated breath for each other to make a mistake.
McCullum reached his fifty in 148 balls, the slowest he has ever taken for a half century. His rate of scoring at this stage was half of his career strike-rate of 61. Watling, at the other end, was even slower, batting at a rate of 20. Ravindra Jadeja bowled from one end tirelessly. It was an old-fashioned grind on an old-fashioned ground.
McCullum, who had taken painkillers for his hurting left shoulder, broke the shackles after the fifty, but not recklessly, and took just a run-a-ball from here on to reach his hundred — his second off the series and fourth against India in nine Tests. India took the new ball, and while the pacers did bend their backs, they weren’t really fresh enough to go full tilt. The knocks of McCullum and Watling had taken a toll on them. At times, they even looked one bowler short.
Watling brought up his fifty towards the fag end of the day with a punch off the backfoot. It came off 189 balls. And an edged four off Ishant Sharma by McCullum ensured India would bat again. For all that effort, however, they were still effectively six runs for five wickets at the end of the day.
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