India's Sachin Tendulkar walks off the pitch after losing his wicket for 91 runs on the fifth day of the fourth test match between England and India at The Oval Cricket Ground in London, on August 22, 2011.
©AFP - Ian Kington
NEW DELHI (AFP) - Ageing superstars, a shallow back-up pool and the national addiction to instant cricket have left India facing a depressing outlook at the Test level following their 4-0 drubbing by England.
It was the tourists' heaviest series defeat in two decades, dethroning India from the top of the Test rankings and relegating them to number three behind England and South Africa.
But there may be worse to come, gloomy pundits argue.
India rose to the pinnacle on the back of the combined brilliance of established stars such as Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Venkatsai Laxman, Virender Sehwag, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh.
Two other pillars, Sourav Ganguly and Anil Kumble, have already retired and it won't be long before Tendulkar and Dravid, both aged 38, and Laxman, who turns 37 in November, are gone too.
The bowling cupboard too is bare as injury-prone pace spearhead Zaheer and spinner Harbhajan ponder their immediate future and younger bowlers struggle to come to terms with Test cricket.
"We were fortunate to have such good players all at one time, but they can't go on forever," legendary all-rounder Kapil Dev told AFP. "It won't be easy to replace them."
Tendulkar, the world's leading batsman, and Dravid are still good enough to hold their own for a while yet, but the transition could begin during India's tour of Australia starting in December.
India's Suresh Raina leaves after losing his wicket for 0 runs on the fifth day of the fourth test match between England and India at The Oval Cricket Ground in London, on August 22, 2011.
©AFP - Ian Kington
Former opener Arun Lal, now a respected television commentator, said the defeat in England was a wake-up call to administrators.
"You cannot go on with 35 or 38-year-olds till eternity," said Lal. "We need to infuse new talent. What happened in England was in a way good. We needed an awakening."
Kumble admitted a return to the top will take time, but urged selectors to invest in younger players such as Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh.
"They have to be given a long rope," said Kumble, Test cricket's third highest wicket-taker after Muttiah Muralitharan and Shane Warne.
"You may not see India come back at the top in quick time. But we have to ensure that with these youngsters, we remain in the top three and climb to the top spot after a few years."
With the euphoria of India's limited-overs World Cup win in April wearing off, questions abound over whether the Board of Control for Cricket in India is serious about equipping the team for the rigours of the five-day game.
Critics have slammed the BCCI for poor planning, undue emphasis on the lucrative Indian Premier League Twenty20 competition, and a lack of injury management.
India's Amit Mishra (L) is consoled by team-mate Sachin Tendulkar after losing his wicket for 84 runs on the fifth day of the fourth test match between England and India at The Oval Cricket Ground in London, on August 22, 2011.
©AFP - Ian Kington
Whispers have grown in recent years of youngsters skipping first-class matches to ensure they stay fit to fulfill their million-dollar IPL commitments.
Former India captain Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi doubts if the cash-rich BCCI will follow Cricket Australia's example of ordering an in-depth review to pinpoint the ills in Indian cricket.
"The BCCI is not going to show a great deal of vision," said Pataudi. "Cricket will continue the way it is, but I sincerely hope that some sense does come in."
The BCCI's lop-sided scheduling is evident in the fact that India's exhausted cricketers will get no respite -- or a chance to work on their game at the nets -- after their return from England.
The Champions League Twenty20 competition, featuring domestic club teams from across the cricket-playing world, begins in India on September 19, just three days after the last one-dayer in England.
Among the IPL teams in the fray are Dhoni's Chennai Super Kings, Tendulkar's Mumbai Indians and Kohli's Bangalore Royal Challengers, while Gambhir's Kolkata Knight Riders will play in the qualifying round.
After the Champions League ends on October 9, India will host England for five one-day internationals from October 14 to 29, followed by a Test and one-day series against the West Indies at home till mid-December.
The hectic schedule leaves India with just one warm-up match in Australia ahead of four back-to-back Tests starting on Boxing Day (December 26). Late efforts are now on to pencil in another practice game.
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