By any standards, Brendon McCullum has had a great year with the bat in Test cricket. His stroke-filled hundred at Hyderabad, however, is the strongest indicator that opening the batting could well be the making of him in the five-day arena. Some would say that six centuries and an average of 36.5 after 54 Tests represents a poor return for a man of his undoubted ability and his displays so far in India suggest that they're right.
After making 185 against Bangladesh at the start of the year, McCullum scored another attractive hundred as New Zealand made Australia wait for victory in the first of the home Tests against the old enemy. Before Ahmedabad though, he had opened only once, more than six years ago in what was the last series that Gary Kirsten, India's coach, would play.
As a one-day opener, he averages 41.76 and scores at better than a run a ball. Given the success enjoyed by Virender Sehwag and Chris Gayle and New Zealand's failure to find a reliable opening pair, it's perhaps surprising that McCullum wasn't asked to go up the order earlier. Once he gave up the wicket-keeping gloves and the physical burden that came with it, it became a possibility and this innings has shown just how he could grow into the role.
Having come to the crease with the team 122 in arrears and smarting from the indignities meted out by Harbhajan Singh, it would have been easy for New Zealand to withdraw into a shell and try to play for the draw. That approach though doesn't sit well with McCullum's character, and after Tim McIntosh had taken much of the early strike, he was quickly on his way with some fluent shots past the infield.
"I've really enjoyed it," said McIntosh of the opening partnership at the end of the day's play. "We were talking before coming out for this innings of how we really wanted to get ourselves underway. We had some really good open-wicket training before the first Test and we both felt that we complement each other pretty well. He kind of takes the pressure off you at times too when he gets going. I think it stands us in good stead for the future."
What was most noteworthy about New Zealand's response was the positivity on view. You expected McCullum to put the bad balls away, but McIntosh was no slouch either, coming down the pitch to smash a six of his own. "I think positive intent's been a big thing for us," he said. "We both know that if we get ourselves in, we can bat like any other situation despite being behind in runs."
India were looking especially listless until Simon Taufel gave them a break in the afternoon. There didn't appear to be any hint of an edge of glove as McIntosh went to sweep Pragyan Ojha, and the decision turned the course of the day's play. The run-rate slowed down and three wickets in the final session gave India some hope of forcing a result.
"Some would say that six centuries and an average of 36.5 after 54 Tests represents a poor return for a man of his undoubted ability and his displays so far in India suggest that they're right"
McCullum, whose confident approach included reverse-sweeps and deft paddles in addition to crashing drives and cuts, was still there on 124, and McIntosh suggested that there would be no change in tactics on the final morning. "We'll continue to play positively tomorrow," he said. "It's an important first session for us. If we can have a good one, it sets up the chance to set India something."
That possibility remains remote, especially given how placid the pitch is, but New Zealand have been anything but overawed over the nine days of this series. "I think they've been good wickets," said McIntosh when asked if he had been surprised by the lack of dramatic turn even on the fourth and fifth days. "Some balls have spun. Probably not as conducive [to spin] as you may have seen over here. But I think they've been good cricket wickets."
Confirmation of how hard India have been made to toil came from the local hero, VVS Laxman. "They've always been [a tough bunch]," he said. "Whatever series I've played against them at home ... even in the 2003 series, they put in a good fight. They are good players of spin bowling. The most important thing they are showing in this series is that they're playing with a lot of patience and not throwing away their wickets. They are a very good side which we all knew before the start of the series."
India may have the edge, but they'll need to lift their game to a level seldom glimpsed over the past nine days if they're to land the knockout punch.