Over the years, the glorious game of Test cricket has churned out moments that are forever destined to be part of a nation’s psyche. To name a few, for England, the Ashes victories of 1953, 1981 and 2005 stand out. For Australia, the three Ashes whitewashes and a golden run in the 2000’s are a matter of pride. India’s moments of glory came against England in 1971 and Australia in 2000-01. For New Zealand – the least populated of all Test nations – the wins over England in 1977-78 and Australia in 1985-86 were moments to cherish.
The Black Caps can claim to have added another great chapter to their modest – yet gutsy – list of performances which are likely to go down in the history of New Zealand’s sport as a whole. A brilliant home summer for them ended yesterday with a 1-0 series victory in the two-Test series against India. This was their first series win against India in eleven years. That they managed to stave off India’s charge to level the series with an epic comeback through captain Brendon McCullum and wicketkeeper Bradley-John Watling was indicative of the fighting spirit of the side, and the duo’s record partnership is the cherished performance I am referring to.
Few teams would have resisted the opposition for even a day, let alone draw the Test, at a score of 94/5 just after lunch on the third day, still requiring 152 more just to avoid an innings defeat. That was the perilous position New Zealand found themselves in in the second Test at Wellington’s Basin Reserve. After scoring a 40-run win in the opening game at Auckland, McCullum asked for green top to be rolled out at the Basin in a bid to rattle the Indians and sweep the series. But just two sessions into the game, the decision was appearing to have backfired. Put into the bat, the hosts were bundled out for 192. They then allowed India to go from 165/5 to 438 and ended the second day at 24/1. A tame end to a highly satisfying summer was inevitable when McCullum came out to bat at 52/3. The captain saw two more wickets fall before being joined by Watling at the crease. Around 240 overs were still left to be bowled in the match.
Coming into this series, McCullum was battling a prolonged dry run with the bat. In the first Test he smashed a typical 224 to set the tone for his side’s victory. At Wellington, he was in danger of being criticised of undue bravado in taking a risk with the pitch when he could have easily aimed at playing it safe. The summer had been great – a convincing Test series win against the West Indies, a rare ODI sweep of World Cup champions India and now a Test series lead against India. A defeat at the Basin would certainly mean that a bit of the sheen would be taken off the hard work the Black Caps have put in in the last few months.
A determined McCullum was not going to surrender so easily. With able support in the tenacious Watling, the two set about on the onerous task of saving the Test. Over by over, session by session, the scoreboard ticked on. India’s captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni grew restless by the hour. Indian shoulders began to droop, their bowlers began to get tired. Sessions came and went, but the two proceeded on undeterred. Hardly giving a chance, there were plenty of leaves with the odd boundary here and there. Will power and grit was on ample display on the third and fourth days of the Test. Milestones were passed, the lead was achieved. An epic was being played out in front of a tense but appreciative crowd. Just one breakthrough and the floodgates would open, India would have thought. But it was not to be.
When India claimed New Zealand’s 5th wicket, the score was 94 just after lunch on Day 3. The next wicket, that of Watling, fell 123 overs later, just after tea on Day 4. Between these two dismissals, McCullum and Watling had etched their names in cricket folklore, adding a world-record sixth-wicket partnership of 352. In a most awe-inspiring manner, a certain defeat was now being converted into a very possible chance of victory. Seldom in modern times has a Test turned around in such a manner because of just one partnership. Watling might have fallen – for a heroic 367-ball 124 in 510 minutes – but McCullum was not done by any means.
Along with debutant James Neesham – who smote 137* of his own off India’s beleaguered bowlers – for company, McCullum set his sights on becoming the first ever New Zealander to score a triple hundred in Tests. He achieved the dream number with a late cut boundary early on the final day as the Wellington folk applauded him with collective delight. It was most heartening to know that people had queued up early in the day outside the ground to watch the milestone moment unfold. Among others, father Stu was in attendance as well. This was a moment for the ages, and an innings of character which will never be forgotten by the cricket world. When he was finally out for 302, he had batted for 775 minutes and faced 559 balls – the longest Test innings in terms of minutes by a New Zealander and the eighth longest overall. New Zealand went on to their highest ever total of 680/8 and India managed to hold on to a draw.
The McCullum and Watling show evoked comparisons with two other legendary rearguard efforts. In 2000-01, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid added 376 for the fifth wicket to overturn a 274 run first innings deficit into a stunning 171 run win over the rampant Australians at Kolkata. In 1990-91, incidentally at Wellington, New Zealand trailed Sri Lanka by 323 on the first innings before captain Martin Crowe and Andrew Jones put on a then world record 467 for the third wicket to save the Test. In that match, Crowe had made 299 and New Zealand totalled 671-4 in the second innings – both national records which were destined to be broken at the same venue 23 years later. Also, New Zealand’s 680 became the highest third-innings total in Test history. The sixth-wicket stand of 352 broke the previous record of 351, added by Mahela Jayawardene and Prasanna Jayawardene for Sri Lanka against India at Ahmedabad in 2009-10.
The Wellington wicket may have flattened considerably from the third day onward. The Indian bowling attack may not have been the best around. But in Test cricket, it takes just one minor lapse of concentration from a batsman to lose his wicket. And considering the situation New Zealand were in, this partnership becomes all the more spectacular. McCullum’s innings was easily one of the greatest ever played, and arguably the best ever by a New Zealander – a real captain’s knock. To put things into perspective, this was only the second out of 28 triple hundreds to have come in a team’s second innings – the first one being Hanif Mohammed’s brilliant 337 (in 970 minutes, the slowest Test innings) for Pakistan against the West Indies at Bridgetown in 1957-58.
What was most bewildering was the manner in which McCullum applied himself at the crease. Adamant not to let India level the series, he belied his reputation as a slam-bang batsman to give a modern-day display on how to build a Test innings in the most dire of situations. He had been wonderful as captain this season, but his batting form was a cause of worry. His 224 at Auckland was typical Brendon McCullum – it came off just 307 balls. At Wellington however, the cricket world finally got to see his other side, and realised the vast reserves of skills, commitment and determination that he could bring out to the fore when his team needed him the most. And all this while battling a stiff back and in the absence of the team’s best batsman.
It felt so satisfying to watch McCullum and Watling grind it out to save the Test and win the series for their side. Nowadays, teams are prone to collapsing at the slight sniff of panic, so it makes it all the more noteworthy. This effort proved that if there is the unwavering single-mindedness toward achieving a goal, anything is possible. Indeed, a real lesson in sheer diligence and dedication for all walks of life.
We should consider ourselves very fortunate to have watched a modern-day rearguard which will be remembered for as long as Test cricket exists. Take a bow, Brendon McCullum and B.J Watling, and thanks for digging in!