India second-best against resolute McCullum
For the second time in as many Tests, India were left applauding a Brendon McCullum century. MS Dhoni walked to the edge of the boundary at the end of the day's play, waited for McCullum, who was being congratulated by several India players, and clasped his counterpart's hand. You can talk all you want about strategies and execution and momentum. At times, you just have to admit that you threw everything you had at the opposition, and they still came out on top. In the absence of Ross Taylor, it was McCullum who extended New Zealand's glorious summer by another day.
In Auckland, McCullum was helped by India bowlers, who lost their lines and lengths after having New Zealand at 30 for 3. The only assistance he had in Wellington was the two dropped catches. He got nothing else from India. They tried to force him into playing a rash stroke by bowling restricting lines to leg-side fields. McCullum defended, without giving them a chance. They tried to force him into playing a rash stroke by bowling teasing lines to an open off-side field, especially with the second new ball. McCullum attacked, without giving them a chance.
Ravindra Jadeja was at New Zealand all day, doing the job he had failed to do in the first Test. His 26 overs went for 120 in the first innings in Auckland. He conceded 49 runs in 26 overs this time. He choked McCullum and BJ Watling with a leg-side field and a line from over the stumps. Both batsmen defended, and then defended some more. On the rare occasion that Jadeja was too short or too full, they made sure he was taken for boundaries. There was nothing in the pitch for the spinner, and New Zealand ensured they were not going to create anything for him on their own.
Jadeja's run squeeze meant India's fast bowlers had more reason to come hard, which they did. Zaheer Khan has been largely accurate with his lines in this series, but the intensity had been palpably lacking. He made up for it with an eight-over opening spell that yielded two wickets. He never let McCullum and Watling feel they were in. Over the stumps. Round the stumps. Moving midwicket back, moving square leg in. Seaming it in, seaming it out. It was a terrific display from the bowler. The batsmen needed luck to survive Zaheer today. They needed the ball to beat that outside edge, for there were plenty they were not going to middle. You could argue that McCullum and Watling deserved that luck for the way they denied themselves.
Mohammed Shami could have tested New Zealand more had he been more consistent. He is a bowler who will produce an unplayable one every now and then, and he did that today as well. However, he also dropped it short on occasion and when he did, McCullum and Watling were around to take toll.
Ishant Sharma had been awkward to handle in the first innings, and he made the ball kick and seam in again. McCullum and Watling were hit on the pads several times. Even after playing 195 balls and batting on 94, McCullum missed and took one on the leg off Ishant. Just when you were pondering over the replay with the ball-tracker, he walloped the next one for six and was raising his bat for another hundred.
"Him going from 94 to 100 with a six certainly caught me by surprise," said Bob Carter, the New Zealand batting coach. "Suddenly I was sitting down thinking about the ball that had just beaten him. All of a sudden he was hitting it for six."
What more could India have done against McCullum? Dhoni had men in catching positions through the day. Slips, gully, short mid-on, short midwicket, short leg. He tried in-and-out fields. He tried reducing and increasing the number of slips. He left third man vacant. He brought point in, he sent him back. He left cover and extra cover vacant with the second new ball. He still kept going with his specialist bowlers, not trying any part-timer.
But here was the king of indulgence starving himself, gorging in between, then returning to starve again. Alongside was a sidekick in perpetual hibernation. It was the day McCullum batted nearly six hours, and yet made only 114, despite going almost run a ball from fifty to hundred. It was a day to come out second-best despite giving it all. It was a day to hold a hand out to your opponent and say: "Well played, captain."
Abhishek Purohit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo