WELLINGTON: India continued to enjoy the upper hand in the second and final Test against New Zealand despite a fighting unbeaten century from home team captain Brendon McCullum, who led a spirited fightback on an absorbing third day on Sunday.
McCullum pulled the team out of early trouble and made full use of two reprieves to battle his way to 114 not out off 237 balls and together with Bradley Watling, who scored an equally important 52 off 208 balls, led a brilliant fightback to keep New Zealand afloat.
McCullum, who was dropped twice early on in his knock, and Watling stitched unbroken 158 runs for the sixth wicket to guide New Zealand to 252/5 in 99 overs at stumps on the third day after they lost their five wickets for just 94 runs.
The pitch at the Basin Reserve was a far cry from the juicy green surface of the first day and was a perfect platform for New Zealand to wipe out the huge deficit after India made 438 in their first innings in reply to the hosts’ 192.
But the start of the day was far from rosy for the Black Caps as veteran pacer Zaheer Khan inflicted early damage by removing two wickets in the opening session to reduce New Zealand to 87/4 at lunch.
The post-lunch session too started on a precarious note for New Zealand as they lost Corey Anderson (2) cheaply before McCullum and Watling joined hands to bail them out and ensured that India will have to come out to bat again in their second innings.
But with two full day’s play remaining and New Zealand leading India by just six runs with five wickets in hand, the visitors will still fancy their chances to level the series after the hosts won the first Test by 40 runs at Auckland.
Zaheer (3/60) was the pick of the bowlers for India, charging his way throughout the day, albeit losing steam in the final session.
Ishant Sharma (0/63) and Mohammad Shami (1/72) did much of the horse work while Ravindra Jadeja (1/49) bowled a whopping 26 overs, the most of all the four Indian bowlers.
If the first session belonged to India, the next two sessions, especially the post-tea period, was all New Zealand’s as McCullum and Watling batted with utmost cautious to frustrate the Indians.
McCullum decorated his ninth Test hundred with the help of 14 fours and one six, while Watling struck just four boundaries en route to his seventh Test fifty.
Starting at 146/5 after tea, New Zealand were staring down the barrel and were on recovery path after McCullum and Watling scored at a snails’ pace in the post-lunch session, managing only 59 runs off 29.5 overs.
The duo carried on in the same fashion, picking and choosing the deliveries to score off, even as the Indian bowlers were maintaining tight line and length throughout the day.
Shortly into the final session, in the 68th over, McCullum reached his half-century off 146 balls, with five fours. It was a grinding innings but in the process he became only the fourth New Zealand batsman to reach the 5000-run mark Test cricket.
India had couple of good shouts against the two batsmen now and then, but they were nothing close to the two chances they offered McCullum earlier in the day.
India needed to break the sixth-wicket partnership and expectedly did not waste any time to take the second new ball in the 80th over of the innings.
But McCullum and Watling continued their resistance and raised their 100-run stand off 254 balls.
India captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni expected the new ball to do the trick but the move didn’t work.
McCullum clobbered Ishant over the long-on boundary for a six to bring up his century in style off 197 balls.
At the other end, Watling give McCullum able support and reached a well-deserved half-century in the 93rd over off 190 balls.
It also marked McCullum and Watling’s 150-run partnership and in doing so, they broke the record of Chris Cairns and Craig McMillan, who had scored New Zealand’s previous best for the sixth-wicket in Tests against India. They had scored 137 runs at the same ground in 1998.
Earlier in the day, McCullum and Watling kept at bay the disciplined Indian bowlers to fight their way to 146/5 at tea.
After a dominating morning session, in which they picked up three wickets giving away just 63 runs from 25.1 overs, the Indian bowlers kept up the pressure in the post lunch period with some tight bowling.
But the visitors could pick just one wicket as skipper McCullum and Watling played fighting knocks to help New Zealand add 59 runs in the post-lunch session.
In a spot of bother, Anderson (2) joined McCullum at the crease after lunch.
But four overs into the session, Anderson departed giving a return catch to Jadeja off his own bowling. While trying to turn a slower one from the left-arm spinner, Anderson only managed to loop the ball to offer a simple return catch to the bowler.
McCullum was then joined by Watling and the duo played cautiously to deny any further breakthrough to the Indians.
McCullum and Watling had just one plan — defend as scoring was not at all their priorities.
The duo, however, brought up their 50-run partnership in the process when Watling punched Jadeja off the backfoot to the cover boundary.
But McCullum should consider himself lucky as twice he was handed reprieve by the Indians.
First he was dropped by Virat Kohli off Shami at the personal score of nine and then Ishant put down a tough return-catch chance in the 55th over when the batsman was on 36.
Resuming at the overnight score of 24/1, Kane Williamson and Hamish Rutherford’s only purpose was to bat for time and save the Test match.
But their hopes were dashed early, as in only the second over of the day Zaheer struck and removed Williamson, who gave a faint edge to India captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni behind the stumps. The in-form Kiwi batsman scored only 7 runs off 22 balls.
21 years after their fathers Ken Rutherford and Rod Latham batted together for New Zealand, Hamish and Tom did so for their team, and went past the paltry 15-run stand their fathers had managed.
But their partnership too wasn’t a very fruitful one as they added just 25 runs for the third wicket as the Indians bowled with patience and kept a check on the scoring.
The duo did enough to take the score past the 50-run mark in the 16th over, but in the very next over Zaheer struck again, removing Rutherford as he nicked one to Dhoni again. He scored 35 runs off 55 balls with the help of six fours.
McCullum started slowly and was given his first life when Kohli dropped a simple catch at silly mid-on off Shami in the 29th over.
But Shami struck just at the stroke of lunch and had Latham caught behind to Dhoni. Latham made 29 runs off 64 balls with three hits to the fence.
BRIEF SCORES: New Zealand 192 and 252 for 5 (McCullum 114*, Watling 52*, Zaheer 3-60) lead India 438 by 6 runs