Australia v England, 5th Test, Sydney January 2, 2014

England facing a bitter end

The Sydney Test could be viewed as a fresh start for England at the beginning of a new year, but the build up has not inspired confidence and it will take a colossal turnaround to end with a victory

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Paul Downton could be forgiven for wondering what he had walked into as he started his new job on Thursday.

Downton has just assumed the role of managing director of England cricket and made his first appearance at an England net session at the Sydney Cricket Ground the day before the fifth Test. Observing from the back, talking to head selector James Whitaker, Downton kept his thoughts to himself, but cannot have been overly impressed by what he saw.

He might interpret recent events in a positive manner. He might conclude that, unlike David Moyes a few months ago, he is not inheriting a team in which there are unrealistic hopes or expectations. He might conclude that the only way is up. But he will also have seen how much work he has in front of him.

He would have seen Jonny Bairstow, who will retain his place as England wicketkeeper for this game, kicking the stumps after dropping yet another chance in practice. He would have seen a listless warm-up, a long team talk and a joyless net session from which smiles and laughs were absent. England look as if they cannot wait to go home.

Downton would also have seen Monty Panesar, who is said to be an injury doubt with a strained calf muscle, bowling without obvious discomfort. If Panesar does not play - and it seems highly likely he will not - it will have little to do with his fitness.

England still have a tough decision to make on selection. The Sydney pitch traditionally offers a little assistance to the spinners, though less in recent years, but this one is unusually green. If they go into this game without Panesar or James Tredwell, they will be reliant for spin upon Joe Root and Scott Borthwick. Both are talented young cricketers with many positive qualities, but neither is yet a specialist Test spinner.

Among the other decisions England have to make is whether to include Gary Ballance and Boyd Rankin. The evidence of the training session suggests both will play with Ballance likely to displace Michael Carberry and Rankin likely to displace Tim Bresnan. Three debutants doesn't just speak of a new era; it speaks of desperation. It has happened only once since the chaotic 1990s, at Nagpur in 2006.

It would be tough to drop Carberry. He is currently England's second highest run-scorer in the series - only Kevin Pietersen has scored more - and, though his strike-rate (38.20) has attracted much attention, it is higher than Root's (33.27).

But in desperate times, players are afforded less patience. Carberry could well be a victim of the management's need to find some positives from such a disappointing tour. In the longer-term, his omission should be cause of reflection for the selectors. No-one should be surprised if an unproven opener, thrust into an away Ashes series, struggles.

Root and Pietersen hit the ball beautifully in the nets on Thursday, but Root, in particular, needs to start justifying the faith expressed in him by the England management. In retrospect, it was a mistake to move him from No. 6 ahead of the last Ashes series - a decision that also saw Nick Compton dropped - and, in an ideal world, he would still be able to continue his development against the softer ball in the middle-order.

As it is, though, Root looks set to move to the top of the order with Ian Bell moving to No. 3. Some might say that is how it should have been since Jonathan Trott went home; others that England are in chaos and might as well pick the batting order out of a hat. Root has passed 30 just three times in 16 innings when batting in the top three.

And that's the problem for England. For if you claim an attention to detail that includes the publication of a cookbook, that requires more than £20 million of investment each year, that requires an army of support staff so vast that it may as well include a lumberjack and horse whisperer, then you have to show more for it than a team that changes each game, a random batting order and a collection of out of form players who look as if they've rather be stacking shelves. Somewhere, somehow, this England environment has started turning fine players into mediocre ones.

Cricket would not be the beautiful, beguiling sport we love if it was predictable. But England require a miracle of Biblical proportions to earn a 'consolation' victory in this game. And it's hard to see how even a plague of locusts can help them now.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo