Stephen Fleming asked to be tested by the Indians in the fifth one-dayer at the Westpac Trust stadium. Facing the toughest challenge thrown down by the visitors yet, he and his boys, defending 169, blinked first and lost their first game of the tour by two wickets.
In a match that had the drama and comedy of a Hollywood film, without the presence of Russel Crowe -- New Zealand's finest export to Hollywood, India held their nerve and were guided to victory by the batting heroics of Yuvraj Singh and the all-round brilliance of Zaheer Khan.
"We want to be more polished in the batting and be put under pressure, maybe to the point of losing a game, because it gives you a realistic view of where your game is," Fleming had said before the match.
Eight balls into the game, his wish was granted. After taking a kicker from Javagal Srinath on his knuckles in the first over, he saw his partner, Nathan Astle, trapped in front by Zaheer for a blob.
Off the next ball, Matthew Sinclair shouldered arms to Zaheer and was bowled. The ball pitched on off and swung in for Chris Harris to negotiate the hat-trick ball. But the left-handed all-rounder was caught napping at the crease. Zaheer had him leg-before with a delivery that cut back in after bowling three consecutive away seaming deliveries. The scoreboard read 3 for 3, and with pride at stake, the Indians had smelt the gunpowder.
The Kiwis had truly been tested after winning the toss and electing to bat. For the first time in the series both sides were playing at full-strength, with Sachin Tendulkar returning for the Indians, and Chris Cairns, Harris, and Shane Bond back for the home side.
Cairns and Fleming dug their heels in and weathered a lethal bowling spell from Srinath. The Kiwi skipper struggled to get off the mark and after 18 balls got a boundary to open his account, braving some blows from Srinath in the process.
Playing his first match of the series, Cairns's rustiness showed as he consistently missed the line of the ball. Srinath's second spell ended the drudgery with an in-cutter that crashed into his stumps. (48-4)
Fleming, failing to pull his bat out of the way, then edged Ashish Nehra to Dravid behind the stumps. The frailty of the Kiwi batsmen was ruthlessly exposed as half their batsmen were dismissed inside the first 15 overs with only 51 on the board.
Each time the Kiwis stitched a partnership the Indians broke the alliance. Scott Styris and keeper Brian McCullum got together and were allowed the sanctuary to settle down by skipper Ganguly.
Whenever the Kiwis had India five down for next to nothing on the board, Fleming went flat out on the attack with four slips, gully, man under the helmet up close and fielders inside the ring. Ganguly, however, spread the field and seemed to be more defensive.
Unfathomable is the thought process that goes through Ganguly's head. One minute his captaincy seems mediocre, the next mercurial.
Bowling his gentle seamers, he managed to rap Styris on his knuckles. Sensing his opportunity, he brought his quickie Nehra back and was rewarded with Styris's wicket.
At 92-6, India had the Kiwis nailed and hoping to win their first game of the tour.
Man-of-the-match at Queenstown Andre Adams walked out to the middle and plundered the Indian bowling attack. The contrasting styles of Adams and McCullum were ideal for the hosts. Adams attacked right from the start, plonking his front foot out and pulling anything short out of the ground.
His flat-batted six was a dazzler as was his clean hitting. With a dominant on-side play Adams scored 90 per cent of his runs between square leg and mid-wicket. Better bowlers will, however, study the statistic that he had no runs through the covers. A fuller length will ask searching questions of the all-rounder, who Gavaskar blatantly called a slogger'. His 27-ball 35 saw the Kiwis aim for a total of 150-plus.
McCullum was sedate and cautious to a state of stupor. His watchfulness saw Anil Kumble -- in place of Ajit Agarkar -- bowl some tight overs in the middle. Kumble eventually bowled him round his legs after a 73-ball 35.
The Indian bowlers ran through the rest of the Kiwi batsmen to wrap the innings for 168 runs with eight overs to spare.
Srinath ended with brilliant figures of 10 overs for 24 runs and two wickets. His disciplined length did not allow a single drive. None of his deliveries drifted down leg. Srinath and Zaheer's opening spell could well prove to be India's trump card in South Africa at the World Cup.
Playing captain courageous, Ganguly decided to face the music up front and walked out to open the batting with Virender Sehwag. Taking first strike in the midst of a wretched string of outings, Ganguly won a few hearts for showing spunk. But the moment was short-lived as he chased a widish delivery from Daryl Tuffey and snicked the first ball of the innings to the keeper. For the tenth time in international cricket Tuffey had taken a wicket in his first over.
The demons of the mind lingered as did the terrible form. Ganguly's tendency to hold his head high in tough moments will help him see through another bad phase, though some time off from the current tour and more nets will help him rejuvenate his juices.
Sehwag rolled on as usual, piercing a cover drive off Shane Bond's first ball. Dinesh Mongia, at number three, was a mistake exposed soon enough when a Bond yorker knocked off the stumps. Assigning a youngster with the pivotal number three position was asking too much. The argument that if he has the gall for a fight he would come out trumps tastes bland.
Early last year, Mongia excelled against Zimbabwe in the one-dayers and was picked for the West Indies tour. For the next two months his only time out was with the drinks despite repeated failures of some batsmen. He batted twice in the nets during those two months and yet managed a match-winning 74 in the one-dayer against the Windies. It has been all-downhill since then for the young lad from Chandigarh.
Rahul Dravid or Sachin Tendulkar would have been the ideal choice at number three to see off the opening attack of Bond and Tuffey.
Mongia's dismissal saw Tendulkar walk out to bat in his blues in almost 100 days. The expectation was huge as was the task at hand. Bond was tearing in and darting the ball at speeds exceeding 140 consistently. The gameplan was simple: if India survived the Bond onslaught there were lesser bowlers to get the 169 runs required for their maiden hurrah in Kiwi land.
Pushing forward at a Bond delivery, Tendulkar got a think edge that thudded into his pads and reached the keeper on the bounce. Bond and the slip fielders appealed in orchestra as umpire Billy Bowden raised his customary crooked finger.
It was an appalling decision by the youngest umpire in the business as Tendulkar walked back with a 10-ball duck. On his way past Sehwag, he indicated getting a touch to the ball.
The dismissal threw the Indian innings into a mess at 25 for 3. Dravid, who batted rather slowly, was ably supported Sehwag. Andre Adams was slammed for three fours in one over by Sehwag, who raced away to a quickfire 45. His 40-ball cameo was cut short by Scott Styris, who induced an edge to Fleming in the slips.
Dravid, having consumed 40 deliveries for his 7, tried to push the scoring rate and was caught at the wicket. At 90 for 5, India seemed to be heading for a close finish with Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif at the crease and another 79 to get.
This series has been disastrous for India. There have been some gains though; one has been Yuvraj Singh's coming of age. NatWest final hero Kaif failed to recreate the magic, offering another catch behind the wicket. Four of the five times on the tour, he has nicked the ball to the keeper or the slips -- a point that other teams won't miss in the World Cup.
The seriousness of the situation was however diluted by Anil Kumble's bizarre dismissal. Adams, looking to bowl a slow ball, pitched it in his half; the ball bounced and looped up in the air at super slow pace. Kumble ducked and then realising that the ball was heading for the stumps played a stroke and hit the wickets with his bat to be dismissed hit-wicket.
India were 53 runs away and seemed certain to lose the match with three wickets standing. Yuvraj was batting with a plan in mind, taking the singles towards the end of the over and stealing the strike from Zaheer, never failing to punish the bad balls. He brought up his 50 with a single down to third man but the job was yet unfinished. His fifty had 20 singles and seven fours and was spiked with determination. Off the ten half-centuries Yuvraj has scored, India finished winners on nine occasions.
Zaheer, at the other end, batted with surprising responsibility for a tail-ender. He took the singles with regularity and smashed a clean six of Tuffey as India inched closer to the target. Have India found the bowling all-rounder for the World Cup?
The finishing was clinical and refreshing by Yuvraj and Zaheer, who shared a 44-run partnership. Nine runs away from victory, Yuvraj pulled a long hop from left-arm spinner Daniel Vettori straight to Chris Harris at mid-wicket.
Zaheer finally picked up the remaining nine runs with Javagal Srinath -- India's answer to Inzamam ul Haq when it comes to running between the wickets -- who gave a few anxious moments.
In the end, Zaheer -- later adjudged the man of the match -- ran a quick single after dabbing the ball on the leg-side and celebrated his match-winning innings of 34 and 3 wickets for 30 runs.
India won the game by two wickets and managed to reduce the margin of defeat in the seven match one-day series to 1-4.
PS: The Australian newspapers are flooded with stories about the incompetence of Zimbabwe umpire Russell Tiffin in the last Ashes Test. Isn't it time India made a loud shout about the consistently wrong decisions against their players by Asoka De Silva and Billy Bowden?