Superb hundreds from Daniel Vettori and Jesse Ryder dragged New Zealand from the depths of 60 for 6 to a relatively respectable 279 on a well-grassed but true pitch at Seddon Park. By stumps, India had knocked off 29 with Virender Sehwag looking in ominously good touch. India dominated the first session and the final hour, but the defiant 186-run stand, a record for the seventh wicket for New Zealand against India, could still be pivotal to the outcome of the match. The rest of the batsmen contributed next to nothing, while India's three seamers took all but one of the wickets to fall.
What was especially eye-catching was the positivity with which New Zealand scripted the revival. Ryder was fortunate to survive a leg-before shout from Zaheer Khan when he had made 37 while Dravid put down a difficult chance at slip when Vettori had 77, but those apart, India struggled to create wicket-taking opportunities. Far too many edges went through gaps in the slip cordon, and a couple of run-out chances were fluffed as Vettori and Ryder ran the visitors ragged.
Vettori drove beautifully down the ground and through the covers and he also swept and dabbed effectively against Harbhajan Singh, seizing the initiative in a second session that saw New Zealand score 101 in 29 overs. Ryder was much more circumspect and the selectors who took a chance on him would have been thrilled at the maturity he showed in trying circumstances. Content to see off Harbhajan for the most part, he drove, cut and pulled with immense power when the bowlers erred.
Vettori, who lofted Sehwag for a six over wide long-on, had taken just 139 balls for his third Test century, but when Mahendra Singh Dhoni took a sharp catch diving to his right after he got a thin inside edge off Munaf Patel, New Zealand slipped to 246 for 7. The wickets column showed eight a ball later as Munaf produced a searing yorker to mess up Kyle Mills' stumps. Ryder was on 77 at the time and with the hapless Chris Martin the last man, he knew he had to hurry to get three figures.
Iain O'Brien helped him get as far as 98 before a heads-up charge at Harbhajan saw him stumped. Fortunately for Ryder, Martin survived five balls to loud acclaim from the spectators. The first ball of Ishant Sharma's next over was swatted away for four and after Ryder's celebration, the innings ended with a miscue to wide mid-on.
Dhoni's decision to bowl in humid conditions was more than vindicated as Zaheer and Ishant tore through the top order. Zaheer started the rot with two wickets in four balls, and when Ishant came back to grab three in his second spell. Though the bowlers managed to get movement from the outset, New Zealand had started promisingly. Tim McIntosh didn't appear at ease, but the debutant Martin Guptill started with a superb off-drive off Ishant to settle his nerves.
But once the bowlers found their rhythm, the runs started to dry up and, though Guptill pulled Ishant for four to try and seize the initiative, you sensed that something was about to happen. It did when Zaheer slanted one across to take the edge of Guptill's bat. Rahul Dravid dived across from third slip and took a smart catch at the second attempt, to join Mark Waugh on 181, a world record. When Daniel Flynn tickled one down the leg side for Dhoni to take a fine catch, any sense of well-being disappeared.
It should have been even worse, but Sehwag put down Ross Taylor at gully, despite getting two opportunities to grab on to an ill-judged slash. Taylor eased Zaheer twice through the covers with beautiful timing and you wondered how expensive that lapse might be, but there was never any hint of New Zealand getting away. They scored only 30 runs in the opening hour.
When both McIntosh and Taylor drove a tiring Zaheer for fours soon after, Dhoni took him off and brought back Ishant. Cue mayhem. McIntosh's attempt to play one with an angled bat found Sehwag at the first of two gullies and though Ryder got off the mark with a fluent square-drive, the pressure was relentless.
Munaf gave nothing away, bowling full and straight, but it was Ishant that struck, sending Taylor's off stump flying with a superb delivery that darted back in to brush the pad. Poor James Franklin was sent packing by Simon Taufel, though replays clearly showed that the delivery from Ishant had brushed the back pad and not the bat. But with no referral system in place for the series, New Zealand were suddenly looking at a score of 51 for 5.
When McCullum edged one to second slip just before lunch, it was beginning to resemble the second Test of the 2002-03 series, when neither side passed 100 in the first innings. Ryder and Vettori had other ideas though, and a stirring riposte transformed a no-contest into a proper scrap.