McCullum, Watling live to fight another day
New Zealand 192 and 252 for 5 (McCullum 114*, Watling 52*, Zaheer 3-60) lead India 438 by 6 runs
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details
He has lost the toss after asking for a nasty seamer. He has followed it up with a loose stroke to put the series lead in jeopardy. He has a dodgy back and a knee, and a left shoulder that is making him take painkillers. Brendon McCullum has also pulled out his toughest Test knock yet to take the Test into the fourth day and make sure India will have to bat again. At three down he came in with 194 required to save the innings defeat, saw it become 152 with five wickets in hand, but in the company of BJ Watling he produced a tough rearguard that has given New Zealand the hope of clinging onto the series lead. The two came together in the fourth over after lunch and walked back together at stumps, having put together - at 158 - New Zealand's best sixth-wicket stand in a second innings.
These fighting scratchy innings are the thing Watling does, but McCullum - playing his 84th straight Test, only three players have played more straight from their debut - had to battle his attacking instincts, swallow his pride along with pain-killing pills. He also absorbed and absorbed all the pressure before opening up upon reaching fifty, launching a calculated assault in an endeavour to crush the tiring bowlers. He was helped along the way by Virat Kohli and Ishant Sharma, who dropped him on 9 and 36, but arguably the biggest assist came from the MS Dhoni-Duncan Fletcher combine, which has a history on putting premium on making scoring difficult as opposed to survival.
Whisper it softly: India are still well ahead in the game. New Zealand are practically 6 for 5. However, it didn't look like India were ahead even when New Zealand were minus-125 for 5. Ishant Sharma, their best bowler of the series, bowled to McCullum with no slips and a 6-3 leg-side field. Ravindra Jadeja bowled 24 overs unchanged for two moments of excitement because he could keep the runs down. India were clearly preying on McCullum's pride, waiting for a mistake. Apart from the two mistakes India didn't capitalise on, they couldn't draw any from McCullum.
You expect attacking batsmen such as McCullum to rethink their defensive strategy when they are dropped at 9 off 33, or 36 off 108. You expect them to think, "What the hell, this is going nowhere, I may as well attack." That thought either didn't occur to McCullum or he fought it successfully. Along with Watling, he defended, defended and defended. He knew if he did get an edge coming forward there was a good chance it would go through the vacant slip cordon. Which was strange especially given how the first three wickets in the morning all fell because the ball seamed and took the edge.
Dhoni, though, was telling the batsmen he didn't trust their skill and patience enough to survive on singles for too long. And at any rate, there will be the new ball in the middle of the final session. McCullum and Watling were bent on proving them wrong. Every now and then a ball would misbehave, every now and then they would erase its memory as if with their feet while scratching the guard. It was such slow going that India seemed in total control, but drip by drip, with every ball defended, with every drop of sweat broken, McCullum and Watling were growing surer of themselves.
It was around the 55th-over mark when McCullum was seen flexing his left shoulder, and taking a pill. He might have had the pain before, but this was the first time he showed it. Were India beginning to think of the last two captains Ishant had let off his own bowling? Michael Clarke had gone on to score 329, Alastair Cook 190.
Like Clarke and Cook, McCullum loves India, as his average of 61 against them suggests. Three of his four best series as a batsman have come against them. Every now and then, even McCullum needed a release from the pent-up tension of just dead-batting. When Zaheer Khan, who had taken the first three wickets, came back for a mid-afternoon spell, McCullum pulled his first ball through midwicket for four. Back to defence. From 42 he took 32 balls, a tea break and a slog-sweep off Jadeja to release the tension again and bring up his slowest half-century.
By the time McCullum reached fifty, the new ball was 12 overs away, and New Zealand 93 short of making India bat again. India sat back and waited. The new ball has been doing things. There was one difference here, though. When New Zealand were facing resistance in Auckland, Neil Wagner went for the wickets even as they waited for the new ball, and brought in two new batsmen. Here India almost let these two bat through.
And when the new ball arrived McCullum laced it. The first ball he faced with it he crashed it through cover for four, and immediately deep point went back. New Zealand still minus-38 for 5. The attack on the new ball continued from McCullum as he went from 51 to 100 in 51 balls and with a slogged six off Ishant. You could see that was a release McCullum needed, a pause to gather himself again, and then get back to business.
Watling helped him along, always ready to run at the captain's call, twice diving in to save his wicket, inching to his fifty. During the day McCullum became only the fourth New Zealander to 5000 runs, Watling brought up his 1000 too. When they walked back they knew their job was far from done, but they also knew - former openers, both - they might be on to something really special.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo