McCullum leads New Zealand's quest for safety
At the end of the fourth day, New Zealand needed to bat out one-and-a-half to two sessions to achieve consecutive draws against India, and they had six wickets in hand. Brendon McCullum led their quest for safety with his third century in five Tests this year, but was also looking for a man to stand with him for long enough, after India kept their chances of a win alive with three wickets in the long final session.
McCullum used his dazzling strokeplay to spread the fields, an area where India were happy to oblige, and then defended resolutely. However, a mix of an ordinary umpiring decision, a careless shot, and a beauty from Suresh Raina less than half an hour from stumps left New Zealand and McCullum on the edge. Raina's sharp offbreak to get Jesse Ryder out for 20 sustained the trend of role-reversals after Harbhajan Singh achieved the unique feat of getting consecutive centuries from No. 8, but went wicketless for 23 overs.
When New Zealand started their innings inside the first hour of the day, trailing by 122, it was obvious they were the only team that could lose. Yet their openers went about their job in a positive fashion against a Zaheer Khan-less India, wiping off the deficit in 35 overs, posting their first century opening stand since June 2004.
India kept the pressure up, though, with timely wickets. Three of the four dismissals involved some umpiring drama. Tim McIntosh, one short of getting a fifty to go with his first-innings century, in the Test immediately after he bagged a pair, was given caught bat-pad when he didn't seem to have touched the ball. Martin Guptill and Ross Taylor had to wait by the boundary rope as the umpires checked the legality of the deliveries that dismissed them, only to rule in favour of the bowlers, Pragyan Ojha and Sreesanth, on both occasions.
McCullum, though, didn't give the umpires any chance to adjudicate, except for signalling 11 fours and three sixes. His calculated approach of attacking the new bowlers early made the job easier for McIntosh, who - like in first innings - didn't mind staying inconspicuous.
McCullum's plan worked the best against Sreesanth, whom he cover-drove and upper-cut for boundaries in his first two overs, posting the first double-digit opening stand for New Zealand in five attempts. In Sreesanth's third over, he top-edged a pull from outside off, but it landed safe, the closest India came to dismissing him. Sreesanth began trying too hard, bowling three no-balls in the first spell of four overs, cutting the side crease once. Both openers then negotiated him with ease.
It didn't help India that Zaheer pulled up with an abdominal strain and left the field midway into his fifth over. More so, since Zaheer was the only bowler who created opportunities against the openers, inducing two edges in the first over, both from McIntosh, that flew between second slip and gully.
Against the other bowlers, McCullum continued with his strategy. He hit the fourth ball he faced from Harbhajan for a straight six, and the fifth and sixth from Ojha for a six and a four. McIntosh also grew in confidence, and came down the track to both spinners and lofted them into the cow-corner area, in a fashion reminiscent of Stephen Fleming.
Just before tea, though, with nothing happening for India, they got a lucky break through McIntosh's wicket. Post the break, McCullum remained in control, sweeping the spinners all over the park even as Zaheer served time on the field to become eligible to bowl again. In one Harbhajan over, McCullum took four and two with reverse-sweeps, a two with the powerful conventional sweep, and a four with the paddled variety. Two Harbhajan overs later, he brought up his hundred with a cut in front of square to beat the deep point, off 132 balls, in a team total of 174.
At the other end, though, Guptill looked to cut fullish deliveries once too often and edged Ojha. Sreesanth delivered an inspired spell with the old ball, reversing through a small gap between Ross Taylor's bat and pad. At three down with just 65 runs in New Zealand's credit, McCullum took more responsibility on himself, getting extra-cautious, determined to play out the day.
Ryder, on the other hand, found some fluency to take the lead speeding past 100, but was undone by a sharp offbreak from Raina. It angled in towards off, and broke and bounced to take the faint edge. The last 25 minutes were dedicated to defence, Harbhajan threatened to bringing the close-in fielders into play but Kane Williamson survived the tense moments.
Harbhajan, though, would have loved to carry his batting form from the morning session. It was his batsman-like effort that made sure India wouldn't lose the match. Resuming on 85, Harbhajan showed no anxiety whatsoever in getting to the hundred, also taking his stand with Sreesanth to 105, the third-highest for an Indian last wicket.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at Cricinfo