"It's like we're not even in India!" An Australian cricketer shouts this across the lobby of the lushly appointed ITC Gardenia in Bangalore on a recent international tour. At once, the comfort to be felt in the increasingly opulent world of hotels and restaurants in one of the world's fastest growing economies was contrasted with the mess and noise to be seen, heard and smelt outside them.
Australian touring teams in India in recent times have been extremely well looked after off the field, while at the same time coping with an increasingly hostile and foreign environment on it. Cocooned in the best hotels and surrounded by support staff, it is possible for a cricketer to forget he is in India until he comes face to face with the combative home side and the pitches on which they play.
Go back a few decades to the late 1960s and the circumstances were rather different. The first Test of the 1969-70 tour took place at Mumbai's Brabourne Stadium, home to the Cricket Club of India and venue for this year's warm-up match. Bill Lawry's team were housed in quarters at the stadium itself, on three-inch mattresses with wooden bases, with air-conditioning so loud as to make sleep impossible. In The Summer Game, Ian Chappell told Gideon Haigh of an evening search for food:
"Brian Taber went downstairs and came back with a loaf under his arm. 'If you want to eat another meal in this place, don't go down and look at the kitchen,' he said. Being curious, a couple of us went down to investigate and we found cats in the refrigerator, cats running over the uncovered food, green slime on the floor, barred windows with no glass, and a rubbish tip with an unbelievable stench outside the window."
The ensuing Test was marred by crowd riots and stands set on fire after a dubious caught-behind decision went in favour of Australia, as India battled to save the match on the fourth afternoon. Stumps were drawn early, in part due to concerns for the players' safety: Johnny Gleeson was struck in the back of the head by a bottle as the players departed; Lawry narrowly avoided a hurled wicker chair. The tourists huddled in the toilet block as a police lathi charge was ordered to quell the protests, and they were confined to their basic Brabourne lodgings overnight before completing victory the next day.
"Cocooned in the best hotels and surrounded by support staff, it is possible for a cricketer to forget he is in India until he comes face to face with the combative home side and the pitches on which they play"
As the tour rolled on, the players became increasingly discontented by the conditions under which they were expected to play, the hotels in which they were compelled to stay, and the burgeoning assortment of illnesses they were forced to suffer through. Many of the tourists have since pointed to the trip as the start of the rumblings that led to the World Series Cricket breakaway - Lawry's letter of complaint to the Australian Cricket Board may well have contributed to his 1971 sacking.
Certainly its effects were well measured by the ABC's Alan McGilvray when he first saw the Australia team in South Africa for the second leg of an unreasonably long and unrepeated tour: "They looked haggard. Their eyes seemed to be standing out of their heads and some of them looked positively yellow." It was a surprise to no one to see South Africa go on to win the Tests 4-0 by huge margins in their last series before apartheid-driven isolation.
Australia's last tour before the WSC truce was to India in 1979, Allan Border's first of many. In the intervening decade, conditions had not overly improved. Border called it "12 weeks of complete cricket culture shock". So it was for most members of the touring party, led by Kim Hughes, with only the slimmest smattering of experience among them. In the circumstances they did well to draw four of six Tests, while subsisting on diets composed largely of tinned fruit, boiled water and the odd tin of imported Swan Lager.
Little had changed by the time of the 1986 visit, at least in terms of the players' living conditions. Dean Jones, author of an epic double-century in the tied Madras Test of that same tour, recalled the mixture of rough sleep and rougher attitudes from spectators. "Even on the '86 tour some of the hotels were bloody awful, to be quite honest," he told cricket writer Philip Derriman in 1998. "At one place we had to sleep on towels. There were no sheets on the mattresses.
"[Fielding] you get bombarded with broken bottles, fruit, D-sized batteries - that's the latest craze - penny bungers, golf balls. We learned if you're fielding on the boundary to play to the crowd and enjoy them, and then they'll come on your side, like Pat Symcox did here. They're a very knowledgeable crowd over there. They follow cricket like Melbournians follow Aussie Rules."
Another decade passed before Australia's cricketers returned to India for a Test match, a one-off in 1996 in Delhi. This tour marked something of a Rubicon for the experience of touring life. The players' hotels were better, but the team's requirement to catch a slow train from Delhi to Patiala for their warm-up fixture ahead of the Test caused Mark Taylor's men to put their foot down about the need for charter flights between venues. That played out to the extent that an official line of "no plane, no game" was put out by the team management on the next trip to India, in 1998. Even then, Malcolm Knox wrote that the team's private attitudes contrasted with public platitudes:
"Team policy dictates that public questions about touring India be answered with an effusion of delight and love. Privately, nothing could be further from the truth. With a few exceptions, the Australian cricketers have been dying to get back home since early March. A good portion of the squad, simply, hate it here. They have played their cricket through a veil of homesickness. On the other hand, there have been many positives on this tour. Foremost is a recognition that Australian cricketers must come here more often."
So it was that they did come more often, to a peak between 2007 and 2011, where Australian sides visited India five years in a row. Driven largely by a far tighter financial and touring relationship between Cricket Australia and the BCCI, the frequent visits were bolstered by ever-improving standards of treatment for touring players in India, and also by their willingness to spend time in the homeland of the IPL and plenty of endorsement-deal opportunities. There was, too, a greater desire to explore the country, as championed by Steve Waugh and his 1998 offsider, Gavin Robertson.
"I'd like to think Gav and I played a small part in broadening the culture of the Australian team by moving away from the confines of five-star luxury," Waugh wrote in Out of My Comfort Zone. "Touring life gave me a chance to extend my horizons and grow as a person; it also had the ability to stunt a man's personal growth if the sheltered, artificial lifestyle dictated his every move."
But India's cultural and financial evolution also spawned hostility in the place where visiting players had once sought solace - on the cricket pitch. With each passing tour, conditions in the middle have become increasingly challenging while India's players have grown in their own belligerence, led by attitude-changers like Harbhajan Singh, Gautam Gambhir and Zaheer Khan. There is a unity of purpose around India's performance at home that means pitches will suit the hosts no matter what part of a sprawling nation is called upon as a venue.
Undoubtedly Steven Smith's touring party are unlikely to see the conflagration of political infighting and indignant ground staff that combined to see a grassy strip rolled out in Nagpur for the deciding Test of the 2004 series. As much as Australia's series win can be put down to an excellent ensemble effort with the benefit of lessons learned in 1996, 1998 and 2001, those present at the old VCA Ground recall the sharp seam and bounce available to Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie. Mumbai's pitch turned square in the final Test, but by then the series was decided.
"With each passing tour, conditions in the middle have become increasingly challenging while India's players have grown in their own belligerence, led by attitude-changers like Harbhajan Singh, Gautam Gambhir and Zaheer Khan"
The IPL, meanwhile, has had an oddly contradictory effect on visiting players. No generation of Australian cricketers spends more time in India than Smith's, yet the formulas of T20 and the proliferation of pitches friendly to batsmen mean Test matches in the same nation may as well be played on another planet. And even when the tournament has allowed close proximity between Test opponents, the locals have been canny enough to keep certain skills under wraps: Smith has spoken of the fact that R Ashwin often bowled him legbreaks in the nets they shared with Rising Pune Supergiants last year, while David Warner's Sunrisers Hyderabad supremacy will offer him little in terms of relevant information when he lines up against the SG ball in Umesh Yadav's hands.
As if to underline the point, five years of IPL experience made little difference in 2013. Another inexperienced touring team were beaten badly, not helping themselves with internal problems that bloomed into "Homeworkgate" and more or less the end of Mickey Arthur's coaching tenure. But the pitches for that series, in Chennai, Hyderabad and Delhi in particular, were of a kind devised to exploit India's spin bowlers and Australian weakness against them to an extreme that even the likes of Ravi Shastri called foul.
India's strategy has evolved somewhat since, given the batting exploits of Virat Kohli and others, plus the now proven ability of Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja to prosper on surfaces affording them far less assistance than four years ago. Even so, the expectation is that nothing will come easily on the field of play, even if the privations of past tours are now little more than an unpleasant memory for those who experienced them and an outlandish tale for those who did not.
The coach Darren Lehmann, whose own playing career straddled the two Indias, has no complaints before the first Test. "The boys have been great in Dubai and conditions were fantastic there and obviously here," he said. "There's no excuses from our point of view, now it's just a good challenge for the group going forward against a quality side. Obviously they are heavy favourites, as they would be at home. They haven't lost a Test at home in almost 20 matches."
For Australia's cricketers, the real India starts at 9.30am local time on Thursday.