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At 30 for 3, New Zealand were tottering, but Kane Williamson and Brendon McCullum laid down the marker to remind the visitors that they would not find the Tests any easier than they did the ODIs
Abhishek Purohit in Auckland
February 6, 2014
Crowe: McCullum tailored his game for occasion
As Kane Williamson and Brendon McCullum walked off the ground at tea, Virat Kohli gestured in their direction, trying to catch their attention from around 50 feet away. McCullum looked to his left, Kohli clapped, and the New Zealand captain acknowledged the well-earned praise with a nod.
McCullum and Williamson had taken 125 runs off the 27 overs between lunch and tea. This after New Zealand were 30 for 3, having lost the toss on a grassy pitch under overcast skies. The pair would stretch that partnership to 221 runs at more than four an over before Williamson's unfortunate dismissal, feathering Zaheer Khan down the leg side.
By then though, New Zealand had shown beyond doubt that it was not going to get easier for India in the Tests than it was in the ODIs. New Zealand have been making a mockery of expectations and predictions throughout this series against the big boys from India. Few expected them to be anything more than competitive in the one-dayers, but they found refreshing consistency and almost swept the five-match series.
Surely it would be harder to match skills and temperament with a much higher ranked opponent in the longest format? At 30 for 3, it seemed to be so. Peter Fulton had two reprieves and still made only 13, Hamish Rutherford played too many shots too soon, and Ross Taylor was due a failure after successive centuries in the ODIs.
But another man, Williamson, was due a failure even more. Going back to New Zealand's last game in the Champions Trophy, Williamson has now made two centuries and ten fifties from his previous 16 international innings with a further two forties. Only once during this period has he fallen before reaching 10. It is one thing to be consistent, but to string together such a run at the age of 23 is incredible. It also shows how much belief he has in his own game to be able to stick to a plan irrespective of the situation.
Even Taylor seemed rattled in his short stay with the new ball kicking and seaming, but Williamson remained as calm as ever. He edged early, but with soft hands. He felt comfortable enough to step out and loft Jadeja at the stroke of lunch. Two balls after being put down on 32, he eased into a lovely push down the ground. Williamson has been widely marked for years to become one of New Zealand's best ever, but what about the captain?
This has to be one of the most crucial innings McCullum has played, both for his team and for himself. Such has been the recent history of New Zealand cricket that with Taylor's golden run, McCullum's relatively fallow period would inevitably stand out starker for many.
McCullum did more or less do the job he had to in three of his five innings in the ODIs - getting some quick runs after Williamson and Taylor's big partnerships. But he also had two successive ducks, and with Taylor sitting by his side after the end of the ODI series, McCullum was asked whether his own form was a concern. "Yes," he had replied.
And even before a reporter had finished the question about the toss the day before the Test, McCullum had interrupted him to say New Zealand would bowl. He felt the toss would be crucial on this pitch, and losing his sixth successive one to Dhoni this morning wouldn't have been too encouraging.
McCullum said after the toss that some hard work lay ahead for New Zealand's batsmen, and at 30 for 3, his job had become even more difficult. It is fascinating to watch an attacking batsman like McCullum being forced to curb his aggression in Test cricket. But apart from the odd swing-and-miss, McCullum curbed himself well during that crucial period before lunch. He was 5 off 20 at the break.
Even more fascinating was to watch McCullum and Williamson slowly but surely force Dhoni to spread the field a bit. In the 32nd over, McCullum cut Ishant Sharma in front of square for four. Dhoni removed one of his two gullys and put a man at extra cover. Next ball, McCullum cut again, this time through point for four more.
|It is one thing to be consistent, but to string together such a run at the age of 23 is incredible. It also shows how much belief Williamson has in his own game to be able to stick to a plan irrespective of the situation|
This was the period when whatever pressure the three wickets had created began to dissipate. Two balls after these fours, Williamson hooked Mohammed Shami for six. In the next over, McCullum pulled and slashed Zaheer for more runs through boundaries.
Dhoni began the 43rd over from Zaheer with deep point in place. McCullum reached his fifty with a push down the ground, and made room to cut the next ball to the third-man rope. The 45th over started with another slip being removed and two men at fine leg and deep square leg. But unfazed as ever, McCullum hooked, and split the gap between those two men.
It wasn't all boundaries, though. In the last over before tea, when Ishant bowled a few bouncers, both batsmen, who had pulled and hooked so well, just ducked.
Williamson credited McCullum for continuing to bat solidly after he had reached his hundred, something he personally could not do. McCullum hit only three boundaries after the landmark, and one of them was off an inside edge.
The one-day series triumph was the best he had been part of, McCullum had said. While he could justifiably take credit for that as the captain, the chief batting roles were performed by Taylor and Williamson. By ending the first day of the first Test on 143, McCullum has stamped a more personal mark on this contest.
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