We showed strength of character - McCullum
The frustration on Brendon McCullum's face as he trudged off said it all. A wicketkeeper himself, he had known the moment MS Dhoni whipped off the bails that his innings was over, and confirmation from the third umpire merely intensified the disgust. He and Ross Taylor had defied India for 215 balls, adding 104 along the way, but with Taylor having given India a belated Diwali gift, his dismissal came at the worst possible time.
Jesse Ryder hadn't played a Test since Sri Lanka in August 2009, and was on just two when McCullum headed for the pavilion. Kane Williamson, who emerged from it, was in his first game. "You work so hard to get into that situation," McCullum said. "You feel you have a decent read on what the bowlers are doing. I was disappointed to leave two new guys at the crease so close to Ross's dismissal."
After a belligerent start, McCullum was more than happy to play the waiting game, though he seldom missed an opportunity to crash the loose ball past the infield. "I'm going through a challenge at the moment, of becoming a Test opening batsman," he said. "It's quite different from my previous 50 Tests. I was happy to get a score and bat some overs, take some shine off the ball. But I was also bitterly disappointed to get out after doing the hard work."
He needn't have worried though. By the time Ryder and Williamson were parted in the final over of the day, they had added 194 from 412 balls and kept India at bay for nearly five hours. Having fought back with the ball on day two, the batting riposte was straight out of fantasy land. "I sat back and watched some of the best batting we've seen from a New Zealand No.5 and No.6 for a long long time," McCullum said. "I don't think anyone could have expected those guys to play as well as they did. We have high expectations of each member of this team, but Jesse hasn't played a Test for a while and Kane was playing his first.
"To put on that size partnership against quality bowlers has put us in a position where we're now back in the Test."
New Zealand made 262 runs in the day at nearly three an over, losing just three wickets, but with Ryder suffering from tightness in his calf and Hamish Bennett still doubtful with a groin strain, they might have to bat at least two more sessions to make sure the game is safe. "There's still two days to go in the Test and we've all seen that a lot can happen in Indian conditions in that time on a wearing wicket," McCullum said. "We have five wickets tomorrow and we have to bat as deep as we can.
"We need to try and get as close as we can to the Indian total, hopefully go past it. Then, control what we can with the ball. It's not going to be easy. Our bowling attack is a little bit light with Hamish down and Jesse with a bit of a tight calf as well. But today, we've fought our way back and shown strength of character.
"We've walked away incredibly satisfied with our day's work. We're under no illusions about how hard it's going to be, but it's a step in the right direction for us as a team. From a spectator's point of view as well, it was enthralling cricket right the way through."
New Zealand were helped along by two big slices of luck. Ryder was 11 when a flashed drive off Sreesanth deflected off Rahul Dravid's palms instead of sticking to them, and there were incredulous stares from Zaheer Khan and the fielders when Kumar Dharmasena was unmoved after Williamson appeared to nick one behind when he had 56.
But those aside, the way the two ground India down was a lesson to any touring side. Williamson defended and attacked with equal aplomb off the back foot, while Ryder slammed one huge six off Harbhajan Singh as if to show that restricted movement wasn't going to cramp his style.
He also continued the long tradition of left-handers tormenting India. Andy Flower, now England's coach, averaged 94 against India, while another big man with booming strokes, Clive Lloyd, scored seven of his 19 centuries against them. Ryder, who made a century at Hamilton and a double in Napier when India toured in 2009, might feel sufficiently confident to hum that old football taunt the next time he walks to the crease: "Can we play you every week?"
The bigger story though was Williamson and the composure he showed even when kept quiet for long periods. "Guys don't tend to develop in New Zealand till they're much older," said McCullum of the 20-year-old. "He's an incredible talent. We saw that during his one-day hundred in Bangladesh a couple of weeks ago, and we've seen it here against a very good Indian bowling line-up. His ability to negotiate tough periods and fight his way through. He has a real calm presence at the crease and I hope he goes on tomorrow to what would be a memorable Test hundred."
There was qualified praise too from Sreesanth, India's best bowler on a day when opportunities were as rare as signs of life on this Motera pitch. "They batted well," he said. "We can't take anything away from them, even if it was a flat track. Williamson looked solid and had a good defence."
After the embarrassing one-day defeat in Bangladesh, the last two days at Motera have provided New Zealand cricket with a tremendous fillip. "It's incredibly significant," McCullum said. "We've gone through a tough time in the one-day game. It can have a flow-on effect to other forms. But today, we've bounced back. We saw it yesterday with the ball too. It's nice to tick off some improvements. There are some characteristics we want to be known for as a team. That's fighting like we have done today, and showing the talent that many of us batsmen do have."
One of them, Williamson, has the chance to become only the second New Zealander to score a century against India on debut. Bruce Taylor, who did it in 1965, was a pace-bowling allrounder who pummelled 105 in just 158 minutes after coming in at No.8. Good as that effort was, it certainly didn't come against a side rated the best in the world.