New Zealand v India, 2nd Test, Wellington, 4th day February 17, 2014

McCullum 281 not out, NZ lead by 325

New Zealand 192 and 440 for 5 (McCullum 228*, Watling 124, Neesham 67*) lead India 438 by 325 runs
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details

It began as a "let's see what we can do" minutes after lunch on day three. Then it became about taking it to the next session. Then to the next day. Along the way it was about making India bat again. Even the most fanciful of New Zealand players or fans wouldn't have thought or planned how they would go about it but, close to five sessions later, New Zealand are the only team in a realistic position to win this match. Brendon McCullum and BJ Watling added 194 to their overnight 158-run stand without ever looking in trouble, helping New Zealand take the lead to 325 by stumps. When the two came together, New Zealand were 152 in arrears.

This is possibly New Zealand's best rearguard ever. McCullum became the first New Zealander to score back-to-back double-centuries, and finished the day 19 short of their first triple-century. Watling played the longest innings by a New Zealand wicketkeeper and fell only two short of the highest by a New Zealand No. 7 in the second innings. Together they put on the highest sixth-wicket partnership, at 352 runs, in Test cricket. And when Watling finally fell, Jimmy Neesham came in and smacked an unbeaten 67 off 96, the third-highest by a New Zealand debutant at No. 8.

Numbers, though, don't do justice to the stories. The task New Zealand's batsmen faced was enormous. They were going with an aim of just batting and batting for days, and at any point for a major duration in the partnership one bad ball could turn the whole match back in India's favour. Having put in a huge effort on day three, New Zealand still began the day at 6 for 5. Just imagine the cruelty of getting out at any point in the first session, and watching India come back.

MS Dhoni, too, decided to test their patience as opposed to their survival skills. Having spent most of the last afternoon waiting for a mistake, Dhoni attacked for about half an hour on the fourth morning before resorting to his fancy fields. At one point, he asked Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami to bowl from round the stumps with a seven-two off-side field. It is not hard to imagine that they struggled to bowl wide outside off. The only chance created with India still in the game was by Zaheer Khan, deep into the first session, but India had just one in-between slip that couldn't get to the catch that a second slip would have taken.

It can't take away from the feat of McCullum and Watling. McCullum struggled with back and shoulder pains even on day three and has a dodgy knee. Watling had kept for 103 overs, and got a 37-over rest before coming out to bat again. They still showed intent as the fourth day began. Now that they were in credit, they knew runs would push Dhoni further on the defensive. Defensive he became, but now he struggled to even stem the flow of runs. The bowlers were not able to follow his outlandish plans, and kept straying every now and then. Fifty-six runs came in 13 overs in the first hour.

The slips came out, the knuckle-ball slower balls from Zaheer Khan stopped landing, Shami and Ishant went back to bowling one loose ball an over, and India were already waiting for a mistake, or the new ball. The seeds for this were sown on the third day, when India's fields suggested they were waiting for the new ball, 40 overs away.

Milestones kept falling by the wayside. When McCullum went past 137, he had beaten his previous best aggregate for a Test series, 370, also against India. When he shouldered arms to Zaheer in the 118th over, at 312 balls, he had played his longest innings too. That leave was part of the only spell where India found some control through Ravindra Jadeja and Zaheer. Four maidens were bowled consecutively, but the two batsmen were too well set and too determined to let that draw them into a loose shot. The shackles broke as Jadeja angled too far into the pads, and New Zealand were off again.

There was little happening for India. Just before lunch Jadeja beat Watling with one that ripped across him. Watling walked towards square leg, and you could imagine him grit his teeth and get his concentration back. Every time they played a false stroke - and there weren't many - Watling would make sure they gathered themselves again. A Watling walk to square leg. A quiet word to McCullum.

In between, McCullum found time to display some brilliance. In the 142nd over, with India already beaten to pulp, he found the boundary beating three men around the point region, and a man behind them in the deep. Soon they walked back together for a session break for the fourth time. The routine was same: a wee knocking of the fists, a quiet pat on Watling's back.

The third new ball arrived in the final session. It claimed Watling. The Joe Pesci to McCullum's Robert de Niro. The lead was an even 200 with three-and-a-half sessions to go. McCullum tried to do to the third new ball what he did to the second. Beat it out of shape. This time, though, he was understandably fatigued. In the 164th over, he played and missed at Ishant thrice. Then, to the fifth ball, he left alone. The capacity crowd at Basin Reserve roared out an applause louder than one for a six or a wicket. They were with him. McCullum appreciated it, and went back to concentrate, to draw those powers out of somewhere. The moment of New Zealand's home summer.

Turned out McCullum didn't need to beat the ball out of shape. Neesham showed he was more than capable of doing it. The game is now New Zealand's. They will hope McCullum gets to his triple in the first three overs so that they can have a shot at two new balls while going for the unlikeliest of victories. Maybe not. After all they have a series lead, and an incredible comeback to defend.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo