Brief Scores—New Zealand 192 and 571-6 lead India (438) by 325 runs.
Through the course of Day 4 in the Wellington Test, the focus kept returning to Brendon McCullum as he passed milestone after milestone. A drive through the covers brought up his 150. A whip through square leg delivered his third 200, all of them against India. A powerful pull for six to the same area brought up his 250. But even as he passed these milestones in the course of a scarcely believable fight-back with BJ Watling, the predominant expression on his face was of pain.
The pain in his back. The pain in his shoulders. The pain in his knee. And the pain of knowing that though he had braved it for 12 hours, he couldn’t savour the sweetness of his achievements till his team was secure. At stumps, the New Zealand captain could afford to smile a little. They are now 325 ahead with little chance of losing a game that seemed lost yesterday.
Yesterday, India had the match with New Zealand at 94-5. Little did MS Dhoni know he would have to wait 122 overs for another wicket. BJ Watling played Watson to McCullum’s Sherlock perfectly, bailing New Zealand out of this crisis with a world-record 352 runs for the sixth wicket. Watling’s near-perfect defence of his wicket kept him at the crease for close to nine hours as he completed one of the slowest Test hundreds of all time in 297 balls.
A couple of half-chances came to India’s slip cordon and were missed. On two occasions, the cordon was so deep that thick edges didn’t carry. Mohammad Shami finally dismissed Watling second delivery with the new ball, thanks to a fast in-cutter. But India’s misery was far from over. Out came James Neesham, backing up his excellent 33 in the first innings with a half-century on debut in the second.
These are not meaningless milestones for the Black Caps. They are ranked eighth in Test cricket. The last time they’d won a series over a team that wasn’t Zimbabwe, Bangladesh or West Indies was in 2005 when they beat Sri Lanka at this very venue. Cricket’s perennial featherweights have now chanced upon an Indian team that has forgotten how to win when the ball bounces higher than the waist. Resultantly, India now face the humiliating prospect of returning from this tour without a single win.
What did MS Dhoni do wrong? He began the day in control of the game. But instead of going for New Zealand’s jugular, he went on the defensive as has been the bane of his captaincy. Half an hour after the start, he brought on Shami without any slips. The cordon continued to be frugally manned through the day and, sometimes, not at all.
Dhoni threw the towel in before the noon session was done. When the first-line pacers had failed to as much as trouble McCullum and Watling, Dhoni had to call in Virat Kohli to bowl seam-ups. Predictably, that ploy failed too, so Dhoni had to fall back to his only remaining pace option: himself. No prizes for guessing how well that worked out. So deflated was the team, New Zealand smashed 131 runs in the evening session, with McCullum on course for New Zealand’s first triple century.
Dhoni rotated his bowlers, kept adjusting his fields, even threw in an occasional one-liner to keep his boys on their toes (“Pujara ko wahan taali bajane ke liye nahin rakha”—urging Ravindra Jadeja to bowl an off-stump line). But none of it worked. Was it just one of those days? Probably not.
India haven’t won a Test away from home since 2011. They haven’t won an away series over a top-ranked team in seven years. They’re likely to return winless from the country ranked seventh in ODIs and eighth in Tests. Faced with stats like those, India must ask themselves if they want business to go on as usual. After all, this is the year they tour England, Australia and then enter the World Cup.
In the opposition camp, things are rosy. McCullum’s leadership skills, team spirit and patriotism have been questioned in the past. But the results against West Indies and India would boost their confidence when they host the World Cup next year.