Tendulkar's ton gives India big lead
Sachin Tendulkar scored his 42nd Test century and gave Seddon Park a batting masterclass as India established a stranglehold on proceedings on the third day. Having started the day one run in arrears, they piled up 242 in two sessions before dismissing both New Zealand openers and Kyle Mills, the night-watchman, in 31 overs before stumps. With Harbhajan Singh getting sharp turn and Munaf Patel hinting at some reverse swing, New Zealand's prospects of saving the game were decidedly slim.
Tendulkar's hundred took just 168 balls and his positive intent never allowed the bowlers to settle. India lost Yuvraj Singh to an error of judgement but though Mahendra Singh Dhoni was initially subdued, a 115-run partnership gave India an advantage that weren't likely to relinquish.
Over the past few months, there have been several glimpses of the Tendulkar of old, the peerless strokemaker who just came out and played without a thought for the cares of the world. That was in evidence again in the morning, with some magnificent strokes played all around the wicket. The tone for the day was set in the very first over with a lovely cover-drive after Yuvraj had clipped Chris Martin off the pads twice for fours.
In Martin's next over, Tendulkar played a gorgeous back-foot cover-drive, and when Iain O'Brien was glanced and then cut for four, he was into the 90s. The partnership was beginning to look ominous when Martin gave New Zealand some respite. Coming round the wicket, he got the ball to nip back a smidgen off the seam. Yuvraj watched it all the way and just shouldered arms. The ball took off stump.
Dhoni edged the first ball he faced just short of third slip, but all eyes were on Tendulkar. A wonderful stroke through cover off O'Brien took him to 99, and a wristy tuck on to the onside when James Franklin came on to bowl had the crowd on its feet, to acclaim a man whose feats are unlikely ever to be matched.
The punishment was far from over though. Jesse Ryder had been miserly on day two, but 24 hours later, Tendulkar greeted him with an on-drive, a deft swish behind point and a nonchalant clip off the pads. Of the 66 runs scored before drinks, he had made 47.
Dhoni was watchful at the other end, with only a fluent cover-drive off Franklin offering a glimpse of the strokes at his disposal. Daniel Vettori came on and bottled one end up, unlucky perhaps not to get an lbw decision against Tendulkar, but the slumping body language of his team-mates said it all.
It only got worse after lunch. Tendulkar swept Vettori for four and was ruthless in his execution of the cut when Martin dropped short and wide. When he tapped one down to third man, he had his 18th score of 150 or more, and the century partnership came up soon after as Dhoni unleashed a withering off-drive off Martin.
It was the impressive O'Brien that gave his beleaguered team some respite. The third umpire was needed to make sure that Ryder hadn't caught Dhoni at gully after another fierce cut, but India's captain was on his way three balls later after gloving a short-pitched delivery behind. Then, after an immaculate punch down the ground off O'Brien, Tendulkar's 260-ball effort ended with an edge to first slip, after he tried to fend a bouncer down towards fine leg.
By then, the lead was 164 and though Vettori took a smart diving catch at mid-off to end Harbhajan Singh's cameo, there was further punishment from Zaheer Khan, who hit the ball through and over the covers with the ease of a frontline batsman. The hapless Mills went for three fours in an over, and the 500 came up right after Daniel Flynn had put Zaheer down off Franklin's bowling. Zaheer celebrated that chance with two whiplashes through cover, and a risky single soon after gave him 50 from 45 balls and added insult to considerable injury.
Vettori was tidy while O'Brien and Martin toiled hard but the lack of quality from the back-up bowlers was glaring, especially against the tail. There were bound to be changes for Napier, but as they headed for the dressing room after Munaf holed out, all thoughts were on surviving Hamilton.
When New Zealand batted a second time, Tim McIntosh lasted just three balls. There were doubts over whether the edge off Zaheer carried to Tendulkar at first slip and the fielder himself went off with a badly jammed and bleeding finger. Tendulkar later clarified that his finger was sore, but had not been broken. Martin Guptill and Flynn slowly set about building the innings with Guptill playing some glorious strokes through the covers and working the ball neatly off his pads. The shot of his innings was undoubtedly a swivel-pull for six off Ishant Sharma.
All the good work was undone in the final few minutes though. Guptill was just two short of a half-century on debut when he played a lazy drive at Harbhajan for Virender Sehwag to take a tumbling catch at mid-off and Munaf then trapped Mills in front with the last ball of the day. The shouts of celebration reverberated around the ground, and the Indians took their time to walk off after a day when pretty much everything had gone their way.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo