New Delhi: India's four most senior batsmen, the engine room of the national side for more than a decade, are facing a debate over their age and whether the time is ripe to inject fresh blood into the Test squad.
Dubbed the "Fab Four", former captains Saurav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar plus Vangipurappu Laxman are coming under pressure ahead of a high-profile home Test series against Australia starting on October 9.
The heated debate has been sparked after they struggled during a 2-1 Test series defeat in Sri Lanka in July and August, where spin sensation Ajantha Mendis repeatedly foxed them.
Experts and the media have speculated that the first casualty could be Ganguly, the oldest among the senior batsman at 36 and India's most successful Test captain.
Ganguly, who made a splendid second comeback in late 2006, has been omitted for next week's Irani Cup five-day game between Rest of India and Ranji champions Delhi, seen as a selection game for the Australia series.
Tendulkar and Dravid are both 35 and are showing signs that their reflexes are slowing down.
The side must also face the fact that test skipper and leading spinner Anil Kumble turns 38 next month.
Some experts feel that a younger generation of One-Day players, led by wicketkeeper Mahendra Singh Dhoni, will pile extra pressure on the seniors.
Dhoni, who led the team to last year's World Twenty20 win, shone with the bat to help clinch India's first one-day series win in Sri Lanka, countering Mendis much better than the seniors did in the preceding Tests.
Among the four elder batsmen, only Tendulkar still plays One-Dayers but he has suffered a spate of injuries this year.
The Irani Cup will mark a return from his latest layoff.
There is anticipation that the team against Australia could reveal changes, continuing the firm decisions taken by the national selectors under ex-skipper Dilip Vengsarkar since 2006.
Vengsarkar's panel has successfully reshaped the one-day side since India's shock first-round exit in the 2007 World Cup and coach Gary Kirsten has favoured a gradual change in tests.
Former chief selector Chandu Borde saw Ganguly's omission as a message for the others.
"When they select a team they also see how good fielders they are," he told Reuters.
"As they get older, their reflexes, particularly in fielding, come down. This is also an indication for the other seniors."
The whispers for change began early this year, after a young One-Day side cashed in on Tendulkar's superb batting efforts to clinch a tri-series in Australia.
The Sri Lanka Tests only added weight to the argument that the time has come to set aside sentiment.
Ganguly and Tendulkar averaged around 16 and Dravid made 25 runs apiece from six innings in Sri Lanka. Laxman, 33, scored 215 runs at an average of 43 to somewhat acquit himself.
On many occasions, senior Indian batsmen were given out after decisions by on-field umpires were referred to the TV official in a new system being trialled.
One former player felt the quartet were shown in poorer light because the referrals, especially over leg-before appeals, wiped out the benefit of doubt which batsmen normally enjoy.
Madan Lal, former India all rounder and coach, felt the seniors should consider their future carefully.
"Just because they didn't score runs in Sri Lanka doesn't mean they are not good players," he told Reuters.
"But when the time comes in life, you have to face all this. We don't know when we want to go," he added.
"We keep on lingering, one year, one year. That is the problem with us."
Lal said younger one-day batsmen Suresh Raina and Subramaniam Badrinath needed to be given test opportunities alongside Yuvraj Singh, who has played only 23 Tests since his debut in 2003.
"I've a lot appreciation for Saurav," Lal said. "He has done well, was a good captain, scored lot of runs in One-Day and Test cricket, but now comes the time when you have to say goodbye. Go like a champion, the way you played."
However, opener Virender Sehwag defended the seniors. "The four have been playing cricket together for more than 10 years," he said.
"They have often rescued India when the team was in trouble. Anybody can have a poor series," he told reporters.
"I don't think they will be under pressure (to keep their places), they will feel the pressure to do well."
Cricket commentator Harsha Bogle, writing in his newspaper column, urged the selectors to send a clear message to the players to avoid media speculation.
"We stand on the cusp," he wrote. "Either major change comes our way or we witness a thrilling battle against time."
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