By Greg Stutchbury
WELLINGTON, Feb 18 (Reuters) - Brendon McCullum showed his growing maturity and desire to stamp his mark on New Zealand with an inspirational triple-century that salvaged the second test against India and sealed a 1-0 series win on Tuesday.
The 32-year-old's 302 at Wellington's Basin Reserve capped a golden summer for the New Zealand captain, who has tormented India for 535 runs in just two tests after guiding his team to a comprehensive 2-0 series win over West Indies.
Having long oozed confidence and bristled with aggression at the crease, it was precisely those qualities that McCullum shelved as he rescued New Zealand from a seemingly hopeless position at 94-5 on day three at the Basin Reserve.
Suppressing his natural attacking instincts deep within his wiry, 1.70 metre frame, McCullum played with restraint and discretion, waiting until he was on the brink of his first 100 before belting a six to bring up the milestone.
Burning with desire to save the test and win the series, McCullum batted for 775 minutes - the most by a New Zealand batsman in an innings - after combining with wicketkeeper BJ Watling for a test record sixth wicket partnership of 352.
"I guess you always want to lead from the front as a captain and I haven't always done that, but that's what the desire is," McCullum told reporters after the second test ended in a draw on Tuesday.
"The hardest time to lead the team is when you're not scoring runs and when your character and the kind of person and leader you are outweighs your own form.
"The team needs the captain to be a strong leader and person who enjoys other people's success as well and that's what I try to do.
"When I wasn't scoring many runs, knowing if I kept working hard and kept faith in my own game at some point I would be able to score those runs and that makes leading a whole lot easier."
The triple-century represents the apex of McCullum's captaincy which was born in controversy and questioned after a disastrous tour of South Africa.
A clumsy leadership change saw McCullum handed the reins of both the one-day and test teams late in 2012, after predecessor Ross Taylor relinquished both in disgust after coach Mike Hesson felt McCullum was a better fit for what he wanted to achieve.
With Taylor, then New Zealand's top batsman, pulling out of the South Africa tour and the rancour still overshadowing the team, McCullum's first series in charge ended in humiliation in both tests, including their dismissal for 45 in the first match in Cape Town.
The team rebounded to win the one-day series and McCullum later oversaw New Zealand's return to respectability with a drawn home series against England, which the hosts largely dominated.
Blessed with a superb eye and quick hands, McCullum emerged as a brash wicketkeeper in his 2004 test debut against South Africa and announced himself with an entertaining 96 against England at Lord's later the same year.
His attacking mindset in limited overs matches made him an immediate target for big-spending Twenty20 teams, particularly in India, where he proved his worth to the new Premier League competition by smashing a century in the first game of the inaugural tournament.
A one-day international innings against Bangladesh at Queenstown in 2007 epitomised his approach.
Needing just 94 runs to win the game, McCullum smashed 80 from 28 balls, including nine fours and six sixes.
The game ended after just six overs of New Zealand's allotted 50 and television commentators joked that McCullum had booked an afternoon tee time at a local golf club.
Respect in the test arena came slower, but after his first centuries against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, McCullum underlined his quality with 115 against India in Napier in 2009, and has haunted the same opponents with runs ever since.
His unwavering confidence has not always been embraced, being at odds with the often reserved New Zealand psyche.
His demands to move up the batting order from number seven where he struck his first five test centuries were seen as a demonstration of player power that had dogged the team and his three-year period as an opener ended in 2013 with mixed results.
Though having pledged never to change his natural game, McCullum's ascendancy to the captaincy has seen a change in attitude.
Three times in the home summer, New Zealand have needed the right-hander to stick around and occupy the crease.
He has delivered each time, with a century against West Indies followed by a double and a triple against India.
McCullum's mountain of runs sealed New Zealand's first test series win against India since 2002, giving the captain another good reason to swagger.
(Editing by Ian Ransom)