For supporters of once-great sporting institutions like the San Francisco 49ers and Nottingham Forest, the past is another continent. Two centuries ago, when Samuel Johnson wrote that "distance has the same effect on the mind as on the eye", he wasn't thinking of cricket in one of the empire's outposts. But even those like Michael Holding, the fast-bowling great who believes that sporting success and failure are cyclical, struggle to reconcile the glory that was West Indies cricket with its present incarnation.

Over the next month, India will go from one island to the other with what is effectively a B side. And when talk turns to the opportunities that the tour presents for those on the fringes, the old-timers will wince a little.

It was a little over two decades ago that a Test match against West Indies represented the ultimate sporting challenge. Forget staged reality-TV shows. If you want to know what makes a man a survivor, watch footage of cricket from the late 1970s and '80s.

Or you could go even further back, to Nari Contractor. At 27 he captained India to a series victory against England. At 28, his time on the big stage was over, skull cracked open by a bouncer from Charlie Griffith in Barbados. India lost that series 0-5, with only Polly Umrigar and Bapu Nadkarni averaging more than 30. Needless to say, those who had to face Wesley Hall (who took 27 wickets in the series at 15.74) with inadequate protective gear weren't abuzz with enthusiasm at the prospect.

When someone like Subramaniam Badrinath marks his guard against the current crop of West Indian quicks, spare a thought for the likes of Ajay Sharma. A generation ago, he was Indian cricket's Badri, a titan of the domestic scene who eventually retired with a first-class average of 67. In his only Test, a game that India won on a Chennai crumbler, against Viv Richards' West Indies, he made 53 runs. His one-day career lasted 31 games. Sadly for him, 11 of them came against West Indies, against whom he made it past 30 only once.

That was around the time that Sanjay Manjrekar announced himself on the Test stage. His first game is now mostly remembered for a marvellous Richards century that set up what was then a record-breaking run chase on Indian soil. Manjrekar recalls it for the bouncer from Winston Benjamin that rearranged his features and sent him to ER.

For a young man making his way in the game, a multi-pronged pace attack that possessed the quiet menace of Hannibal Lecter didn't represent opportunity. It was like looking into a chasm from which you might never escape if you fell in. "I was a lamb to the slaughter, and I knew it," writes Matthew Hayden with disarming candour about the Boxing Day Test of 1996. "The West Indies knew it. Curtly Ambrose certainly knew it. If Curtly hadn't got me out that over then it would have happened in his next, or the one after that. I might as well not have bothered padding up because I was out before I got in. Every sportsman will tell you that there are times when you feel way out of your depth and you categorically know you're going to fail."

For a young man making his way in the game, a multi-pronged pace attack that possessed the quiet menace of Hannibal Lecter didn't represent opportunity. It was like looking into a chasm from which you might never escape if you fell in

You won't find opportunity described thus in the dictionary. You could also ask Vinod Kambli his views on the subject. Going into a home series against West Indies in 1994-95, he averaged 80 after 11 Tests. In six innings in Mumbai, Nagpur and Mohali, he made 64, dismissed without scoring thrice. He wasn't just shaken out of his comfort zone, he was tossed around like a rag doll; his career would see only three more Tests.

As India prepare for a series that they ought to win, they and everyone else need to learn from the Caribbean decline. In many ways Indian cricket is doing things right. For all the criticism of the Indian Premier League - much of it justified - it does provide young talent with the chance to learn from the grey eminences. Twenty20 may not be the most challenging format, but it gives 19- and 20-year-olds the opportunity to share a dressing room with those who no longer have the time or inclination, in some cases, to play domestic cricket.

Talk to someone like Ian Bishop about the mistakes made during the halcyon years, and that's one of the first things he'll mention. The tradition of senior players passing on wisdom and tricks, through club and Shell Shield cricket, largely disappeared at some point in the 1990s. A generation that grew up without much guidance predictably floundered.

Time was when Indians gazed on in awe at the great West Indian sides - at the batting of the three Ws, Sobers and Kanhai, and the bowling of Hall, Roberts and other legends. Things are very different now. Darren Bravo and the other young men who carry the burden of restoring West Indian fortunes need to look to VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid. A callow crop of quick bowlers could do worse than observe how Zaheer Khan operates with the old ball.

These inheritors of a proud tradition need to find their feet quickly. The past may be another continent, but cricket simply cannot afford to see West Indies go the way of Atlantis.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo