Australia face an uphill battle to hang on to the Border-Gavaskar Trophy when their four-Test series against India commences in Pune on Thursday.
While a mixed home summer ended on a high note with victory over a plucky Pakistan outfit, the tourists face an altogether tougher challenge here against an in-form Indian side.
The two countries have developed a healthy rivalry ever since Australia’s famous 2001 tour, a series that ended the all-conquering Baggy Green’s 16-Test winning run following an amazing partnership between VS Laxman and Rahul Dravid in Kolkata.
The feisty Harbhajan Singh was a key-man with 32 wickets in that series and he has unwittingly handed Steve Smith’s side some added motivation by declaring that a 3-0 defeat is the best the visitors can expect.
Reviving memories of Richie Richardson, the Turbanator went as far to declare this team as ‘the weakest Australian side to tour India and that is sure to have ruffled a few feathers.
Mind you, his argument does have some credibility in light of Australia’s appalling recent record in the sub-continent, which has seen them lose nine consecutive tests in the region.
While the 3-0 loss in Sri Lanka was a tad surprising given that visiting sides have generally coped admirably there, the same can’t be said for India, where a Damien Martyn-inspired triumph in 2004 represents Australia’s only series win in nearly five decades.
If Australia are to stand any chance of success then big first innings scores are essential.
During that nine Test streak, the Baggy Greens have topped 400 just once and a repeat of that won’t get the job done against a talent-laden home batting line-up.
As Australia’s best player of spin, much will be expected of skipper Steve Smith who averages an incredible 60.15 through 50 Tests and was one of the few players to come to grips with conditions in Sri Lanka.
With sub-continental specialist Shaun Marsh (pictured below) confirming his place with a century in the recent Tour match, it remains to be seen who will get the nod to open alongside David Warner.
Matt Renshaw has done nothing wrong in his four Tests to date and excluding him would be harsh, although his double failure in Mumbai might see selectors opt for the more experienced Usman Khawaja.
The oft-maligned Mitchell Marsh also appears to have won his battle with Glenn Maxwell for the number six spot for the series opener.
Although there is every chance that the swashbuckling Victorian could come in later in the series should conditions demand a third spinning option.
One intangible that could work in Australia’s favour is the fact that three of the four venues (Pune, Ranchi and Dharmasala) will be hosting their first ever Test.
Raging turners have become the norm in this part of the world but local authorities are unlikely to want to toy with their hard-earned Test status.
While the surfaces are certain to be dry and take plenty of spin, we can arguably expect pitches prepared to last five days and to give batsman a chance to make big runs upfront.
The Indians have been impregnable on their own patch for some time now, winning sixteen of their past eighteen Tests on home soil.
They warmed up for this with a comfortable one-off win over Bangladesh having recently disposed of England 4-0, a result which brought to an end Alastair Cook’s five year-tenure as Three Lions’ skipper.
The abrasive Virat Kohli (pictured above) has really led from the front since taking over from MS Dhoni back in 2014 and looms as the key wicket for Australia.
Indeed, the battle between the two captains, who occupy the top two spots on the official ICC batting rankings, could go a long way towards determining the fate of the series.
The rest of the Indian batting lineup tends to feed off Kohli’s largesse so if the likes of Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc (pictured below) can rattle him and limit his influence then getting through the rest of their lineup will become more manageable.
Opener Murali Vijay topped the aggregates on Australia’s last tour to India and can be expected to perform well again while Cheteshwar Pujara is another to boast a strong overall record against the Baggy Greens.
Much of the Indian’s success is founded upon their strength in depth though, with all-rounders Ravi Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja likely to play a major role.
Ashwin, in particular, has been dominant with his sharp off-breaks almost unplayable at times, leading to a haul of 72 Test wickets in the 2016 calendar year.
Australia must strike the right balance between attack and defence against the pair, who bowl well in tandem and will get through a lot of overs.
Australia have been written off in many quarters but this is a fairly new team, unscarred by previous failures and with a more positive attitude to touring life.
A series win appears unlikely but Australia might be far more competitive than the odds indicate and can win a Test at least.