We are in Ground Zero. At the Gauteng province, where Omicron, the latest variant of ‘concern’ in Covid-19, first surfaced. The masks are out, so are the sanitizers.
The mood is sombre and the Christmas celebrations have been muted. We live in difficult times. It is here, in the Gauteng district, that India will begin its quest for conquering the Final Frontier - triumphing in a Test series in South Africa.
India has series victories in all other major Test playing nations.
The upcoming three-Test series - the first match gets underway at Centurion on Sunday - is significant. India has a gilt-edged opportunity to make history at a time when the South African team is not at its strongest.
And, when its Director of Cricket, Graeme Smith, and coach Mark Boucher are under investigation for racism in a country where the subject is so sensitive. The Boxing Day Test will mark legend Rahul Dravid’s first overseas Test in his new role as coach.
It has been raining in these parts and showers have been in forecast on days 1, 2 and 5 of the Test. A start-stop-start Test could upset the rhythm of both the batsmen and the bowlers.
The Indian think tank could play five bowlers, four pacemen and R. Ashwin in the eleven with the explosive Rishabh Pant at No. 6. There should be seam movement and bounce on a surface with a grass cover at the SuperSport park.
Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Mohammed Siraj, and Shardul Thakur could complete the Indian pace pack. Shardul will also add depth to the Indian batting along with Ashwin.
As the match progresses, there should be assistance for Ashwin; always potent against the southpaws.
READ: Rahane in 'good space', says Dravid
The Kookaburra ball does a lot early on and moves much less later - there is hardly any reverse swing - and openers K.L. Rahul and Mayank Agarwal and No. 3 Cheteshwar Pujara will have to prevent inroads with the new ball.
There will be pressure and scrutiny on skipper Virat Kohli. He is short of runs by his own standards, and his recent statements would not have gone well with the Board. But then, Kohli is passionate about Test cricket and there is no doubting the quality of his batsmanship.
India is likely to give the experienced Ajinkya Rahane - his horizontal bat shots could be effective on these wickets - another opportunity.
South Africa last played Test cricket six months ago. The side has lost five of its last eight home Tests but has won 21 out of the 26 Tests at Centurion. However, now there is no AB de Villiers or Hashim Amla or Faf du Plessis to bail the side out of trouble.
Influential wicket-keeper-batter Quinton de Kock, soon to become a father, is available for only the first Test and the side’s quickest bowler, Anrich Nortje, has been ruled out of the series because of fitness concerns.
Despite the presence of the feisty skipper Dean Elgar, the talented Aiden Markram, and the gifted de Kock, there are holes in the South African batting.
But then, even without Nortje, South Africa has a vibrant pace attack. Kagiso Rabada can be quick and dangerous, Lungi Ngidi has troubled the Indian batsmen in the past and Duanne Olivier, a whippy bowler, can be deceptively fast.
Can India breach fortress Centurion?