Former captain Graeme Smith feels South Africa's "powerful" bowling attack will put the Indian batting line-up under serious pressure in the upcoming Test series, commencing from January 5 in Cape Town. With India leading the ICC Test rankings, the Men in Blue are up against second-placed South Africa in their own den, which certainly makes for an exciting contest. The former Proteas skipper feels South Africa will be extra motivated after their painful 0-3 loss in India a couple of seasons ago.
"I think South Africa will be very strong. With AB de Villiers coming back, their batting looks a lot stronger. The bowling too is really powerful. They have got four really outstanding experienced pacers to choose from and couple of young pacers as well," said Smith.
"Eventually, I think they will only go with three seamers and a spinner (in Keshav Maharaj) and six batters with Quinton de Kock at seven. That will be their batting line-up and I think that is a powerful one," he said.
Smith, however, said the scheduling of the first Test in Cape Town could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the under prepared visitors.
India will head into the first Test at Newlands without a warm-up game but Smith thinks the scheduling might just work in favour of the visitors.
"I think Cape Town will be India's best chance. In South Africa, it is not so much about the moving ball, it is the extra bounce that creates a challenge. Cape Town has had a good drought. I expect the wicket to not do too much and have slow bounce and take a little bit of spin as the games goes on," Smith said.
"Up in Pretoria (second Test) and Johannesburg (third), it is going to be the biggest challenge for the Indian team," added Smith, one of South Africa's greatest captains who led his team to a 1-0 victory at home against India four years ago.
Virat Kohli-led India are certainly on a roll, having won nine Tests series in a row though most of those wins came in the sub-continent.
During the ongoing home series against Sri Lanka, the formidable hosts struggled in pace-friendly conditions in Kolkata and Dharamsala, raising questions over their readiness to play in foreign conditions in a significant 2018 when they tour South Africa, England and Australia.
Smith is expectedly backing a "strong" South Africa to maintain their unbeaten run against India at home and says the visitors only have a chance if they score big runs and the "talked about" pace attack delivers while bowling long spells.
"I think the big challenge for India will be scoring runs. If they can post big totals, they have a good batting line-up, then they will be able to put South Africa under pressure.
"I think it is going to be a cracking series. There are exciting players on both sides. I think world cricket needs an exciting Test series and it is shaping up to be one of those," reckons Smith.
According to Smith, Dhawan and Rohit are much-improved players now but Kohli and Pujara will be the key batsmen against a potent Protea attack boasting of names like Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada.
"Pujara and Kohli will be the key batsmen. These are the two players who played well the last time so they will be the key," says Smith before coming to the Indian pace attack comprising Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Ishant Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah, who has received his maiden Test call-up.
"If India are going to be successful then their three seamers would need to bowl really well. It is a bit of an unknown though, everyone is talking about the Indian seamers. I think the difference is going to be about spells.
"In India, they bowl short spells and try and make an impact but in South Africa they will have to carry a lot more responsibility under pressure, bowl long spells. The seamers will have to win the game for India. It is a very different mindset than what you have in the subcontinent and it remains to be seen if they can carry that and handle responsibility."
Smith is clearly rooting for his team but will not predict the result of the series. He very well understands that it could be a landmark season for the Indian team if it manages to replicate its home success abroad.
"I think that is the next challenge for this Indian team under Kohli. They have won a lot of series in the subcontinent and if they want to go up to be one of the top teams of this generation, they will have to do well in South Africa.
"I know for sure that Virat will be hugely motivated to have a big year. If they can go on to have a 2018 where they win in South Africa, England and Australia, that will put this Indian team in an iconic place, Smith signed off.
(With PTI Inputs)