This Boxing Day, two Tests will start but it is an easy guess which the neutrals will be watching closely. In terms of quality of play and intensity, the India vs South Africa Test at Centurion is far ahead than the England vs Australia game at MCG. This just proves that India is easily the most entertaining team in the world at present.

Let us for once forget the off-the-field controversies, take our minds off from the debate about who is lying and who is not and focus on the action on the field. For me, the biggest excitement is to watch the pace bowling attack of the two teams. It is really tragic that Anrich Nortje, someone who I had the opportunity to watch closely and admire while at Delhi Capitals, will be missing the series. But there will be others from our team from last season – KG (Rabada), Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav – who will be there.

People always talk about the joy of watching pace bowling in Australia and England but South Africa is also a country where one anticipates to watch the first hour of play. The sight of the ball moving in the air, taking off from the pitch is always a great advertisement of Test cricket. So I can’t wait to plant myself on my couch and wait to watch Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammad Shami, Mohammad Siraj, Ishant, Yadav, KG and Lungi Ngidi run in hard and make life difficult for the batsmen.

The first Test match is at Centurion which used to be a 15-minute drive from Johannesburg’s business centre. With all the construction on the motorway, I am not sure how much is it now.

I remember playing at Centurion. Back then it was a good batting wicket, perhaps one of the best in South Africa. All it expects is a batsman to be a little patient initially. Yes, there will be bounce but it will be true. It won’t be easy for the Indian batsmen as they are straight away getting into the Test match. It would have been ideal if they got to play a practice match. But in Covid times that is too much of a luxury to ask for. Having said that, India can still beat South Africa who are in transition. With the victories in Australia and England in the bag, this team led by Virat Kohli will be high on confidence. I’d say India are clear favourites.

The dilemma though is what eleven will play in this Test match. For me, KL Rahul is the main man for India. He displayed some classic batting in England where he batted with patience, desire and above all looked relaxed at the crease. I noticed he was playing the ball late which is a key when it is seaming or bouncing. Let’s hope we meet the same Rahul in South Africa too. I am not sure of his opening partner Mayank Agarwal. He’s in good form but could struggle as he plays with high backlift. It will be interesting to see how he adjusts his game to suit the conditions.

Both Karnataka players will have to combine well to help India get a good start. In the first 15-20 overs there is a lot of bounce. They will need to see that patch off and build from there. At number three I will persist with Cheteshwar Pujara. His experience is gold. Pujara will have enough support from coach Rahul Dravid who is no stranger to either the number three spot or a lean patch that Pujara is facing. I am sure Dravid will back him to the hilt. Skipper Virat Kohli will turn out at four. He is a champion. What would be interesting to see is his approach as this will be his first outing in split captaincy arrangement.

Another hot topic will be Ajinkya Rahane. If I know Dravid well he will push for his case to be included in the final eleven but all depends on Kohli. If Rahane plays he will be under tremendous pressure given Shreyas Iyer and Hanuma Vehari are breathing down his neck. This is a big tour for Rahane. I am also looking forward to Rishabh Pant’s performance. He is a free-flowing batsman who will continue the same approach. He was not in great form in England but is coming fresh from a break. Pant is a match-winner, someone who can single-handedly change the course of a game.

In the bowling department Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammad Shami and R Ashwin are sure starters. I think Dravid and Kohli will have some hard time to decide on how to play Ishant Sharma. He has tons of experience. On the other end there is Mohammad Siraj who lends variation to bowling. He has some good cutters and can bowl some long and tight spells. I’d also be tilted to play Shardul Thakur if India does go in with five bowlers. With Ashwin, he could develop into a second allrounder for the team.

With all that has happened between Kohli and BCCI, this tour has already created a sub-plot of its own. We all will be watching every ball, every move intently. Who knows we could be on the verge of history.