India. The mere mention of that one word conjures up vivid sights, sounds and smells for any cricketer lucky enough to have played the game there. Playing India on their home turf can be an outright intimidating experience, never more so than when you walk out to bat and start your innings.
The crowd are noisy, still celebrating the fall of the previous wicket or two (or three!). The close-in fielders are almost on top of you, ready to pounce on the slightest misjudgement of line, length or pace. The bowler is eyeing you like a hunter stalking vulnerable prey. And the pitch itself is another character in the drama, all red clay, dead grass (if any at all), cracks and footmarks.
In those early minutes, taking guard and facing your first few deliveries, the experience can be quite claustrophobic. You can wonder where your first run is going to come from, and it is all too easy to jump at shadows regarding what is confronting you in terms of the bowling and the pitch. Just because one ball just bit and spun sharply past your bat doesn't mean the next one will - India's spin bowlers have been working with this sort of variation for years and know exactly how to exploit it.
"I'm not surprised that few observers are giving Australia a chance, but that should serve as a motivator. A win on this tour would be up there with anything the Australian Test team has achieved in a long time"
This isn't to say that spin is the only obstacle a visiting batsman will face. In recent years reverse swing has played a prominent role for India at home. The SG ball has been used expertly to get it swerving while still presenting a hard and prominent seam. I was caught in the middle of one such spell from Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma in Mohali in 2008 and it was no fun.
For all that, batting in India can be extremely rewarding, provided you get past that difficult first half-hour or so. The outfields are fast and not particularly big, meaning plenty of boundaries are on offer. The heat and humidity is sapping for all concerned, but there is no doubt it ultimately favours the fit and fighting batsman over the tiring bowler, fielder or wicketkeeper.
Critical to survival and, ultimately, success in India is to trust your technique and not to jump at the aforementioned shadows. Yes, you need to adjust the way you play the game, some players more dramatically than others. But most of that process needs to take place before you step onto the field, in discussions with team-mates and coaches, in net practice, and also in warm-up matches - an increasingly rare commodity. Thinking you have the wrong method for the conditions, or trying to change it in the very act of facing, bowling or catching the ball, is invariably going to lead to hesitation and error.
Hopefully Steven Smith's Australian touring team have all this in mind as they confront an Indian side unbeaten for six successive home series. I'm not surprised that few observers are giving Australia a chance, but that should serve as a motivator. A win on this tour would be up there with anything the Australian Test team has achieved in a long time, something to rank with winning the Ashes in England in 1989, or the "final frontier" win in India in 2004. That series was, of course, the end of a long road for an Australian side that had won more or less everything else under the sun. This time around Steven is trying to forge a new era for the Test side, after a rollercoaster home summer.
As you will see in the team I have nominated for the first Test, I would like to see Matt Renshaw retained at the top of the order for Australia, because he has the height, the power and the concentration to succeed in India. He can also offer a pronounced height difference to David Warner, a useful advantage in an opening pair, which can help to throw off the lengths of India's bowlers, whether pace or spin.
Similarly, the lack of exposure India's bowlers have had to Peter Handscomb could work in the young Victorian's favour, and I would like to see him at No. 4, behind Steven, who should promote himself to first drop. That top four will need to shoulder most of the responsibility for batting at least 150 overs in each first innings. Anything less will be inadequate.
"The close-in fielders are almost on top of you, ready to pounce on the slightest misjudgement of line, length or pace. The bowler is eyeing you like a hunter stalking vulnerable prey. And the pitch itself is another character in the drama"
Shaun Marsh would be a neat choice next in the order, helping continue a mixture of right- and left-hand batsmen, and also putting him close together in the order with his brother Mitchell, who I expect to be given a chance as the third seamer and a middle-order batting option.
After Matthew Wade, the wicketkeeper, at No. 7, Steve O'Keefe and Mitchell Starc offer the possibility of lower-order runs, ahead of Nathan Lyon and Josh Hazlewood.
Australia's attack have their work cut out against Virat Kohli and company, but I do think they have the sorts of attributes that can succeed. O'Keefe's ability to consistently attack the stumps and offer variation between skid and spin will be more than useful, as we saw in his brief Sri Lanka stint before injury, while Starc and Hazlewood are both accomplished at reversing the ball and will need to do so frequently.
Starc's ability to blow away a tail is another vital element of Australia's campaign, and one that has the potential to change the series in a big way. Recent Australia tours to India have been notable for lower-order partnerships by the hosts that have proven extremely damaging: Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer helped India wriggle out of a tight spot in Bangalore in 2008, costing us our best chance of winning a Test that series; VVS Laxman guided India's tail to a one-wicket win in Mohali in 2010; MS Dhoni's epic double-hundred in Chennai in 2013 was made largely in the company of the bowlers.
Last but by no means least, Australia are going to have to field like demons. I can see the bowlers creating 20 chances a Test - in other words, enough to win. But dropped catches and missed run-outs would be extremely damaging, because India will make the most of any opportunities missed. So too will the crowds I mentioned before, and nothing can make the sun beat down harder on the heads of the fielding side than a chance going down.