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April 5, 2009
Riding on Gautam Gambhir's golden run of form, India swept into a near-impregnable position in Wellington and virtually ensured that their 41-year wait for a series win in New Zealand will be over in a day or two. There were vital inputs from Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, but Gambhir stole the show for the second match in a row, getting his second successive Test hundred with a fluent and serene display, stretching India's lead to 531 when play was called off due to bad light 30 minutes early.
Gambhir's effort, and his 170-run second-wicket partnership with Dravid, shut out any little chance that New Zealand had of sneaking back into the match. The home team did have a couple of moments of brilliance in the field - most notably when Brendon McCullum's alertness ended Dravid's stay, and when Iain O'Brien got through Laxman with a perfect indipper - but those stray moments did little to take away from India's overall dominance.
Much of that was due to Gambhir, whose most outstanding trait in this series has been the ability to mould his game according to needs of his team. If his marathon vigil in Napier was a lesson in patience and concentration, here, with India already on top, he busily searched for runs from the start of the day, taking advantage of even the slightest errors in length or line. Even when the bowlers were on target, Gambhir created opportunities, moving down the pitch to pace and spin. Fittingly, one such stroke, which sped away through cover off the hapless Tim Southee brought up his sixth Test century, and continued his astonishing second-innings form - in his last seven such innings he averages 106.16.
Compared to the first couple of days, the conditions had eased up too, with little swing or seam on offer, making the task even more arduous for Vettori and Co. Gambhir made his intentions clear early in the day with a glorious, wristy straight-drive off Southee, reaching out to a ball just outside off stump and caressing it down the ground, and then crashing a short ball through point to indicate he was relishing the conditions. Most of the New Zealand seamers were guilty of pitching short, and that suited Gambhir as he repeatedly placed the ball square on the off side, and once even chipped Iain O'Brien over third man for his only six. Against Vettori, he used his feet deftly, dancing down the pitch and lofting with the spin.
Dravid started far more circumspectly, and was runless for his first 19 deliveries of the day. Once he got into his stride, though, he played with the fluency that was reminiscent of Dravid at his best. He had limped to 9 from 63 deliveries at one stage, and then added 48 more from the next 74, showing aggressive intent against both pace and spin. A cut and a pull off O'Brien got him going, and when Vettori came into the attack, Dravid showed his positive mindset by lofting him straight over his head and over mid-on, as he cruised to his fourth half-century of the series.
India were coasting along, and New Zealand heads were dropping, when McCullum ended the 170-run stand with a stunning piece of work: Dravid looked to paddle-sweep Vettori, but McCullum read the shot as soon as the ball was bowled, and he swiftly moved down the leg side. Dravid played the stroke well, but the ball lodged in McCullum's gloves, bringing New Zealand a much-needed breakthrough against the run of play.
Tendulkar fell soon after, outfoxed by a well-flighted one from Vettori that gripped and turned, but Laxman turned out to be another ideal partner for Gambhir. Like Dravid, he was slow off the blocks, scoring one run in his first 20 balls, but once he got into his stride he scored faster than Gambhir. The New Zealand fast bowlers tried the short stuff with him as well, but Laxman played the pull shot with such felicity that the plan was a hopeless failure. Against Vettori, who bowled a marathon 29-over spell today, Laxman played a couple of imperious lofted shots, as the lead jumped past 450.
Vettori resisted taking the second new ball till the 88th over, but when he did take it, O'Brien justified that move immediately, trapping Gambhir lbw with a full, straight delivery, and then getting through Laxman's defences with a beauty in his next two. Those two wickets did little more than provide temporary respite, though, for the Indian lead had already topped 500 by then.
The only irritant was the weather - the clouds moved in about 30 minutes before stumps, forcing the umpires to offer the light to the batsmen. Play will start 30 minutes early on the fourth to make up for lost time, but with more rain forecast on the fifth day, New Zealand still had a chance of getting away with a draw. That, though, will do little to salvage the series for them.