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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Colin on January 3, 2014, 16:53 GMT

    Big big questions over some of these tourists. Bairstow should never be allowed to keep for anyone ever again, Root needs to go back to county cricket, Borthwick is clearly no more a Test match spinner than Steve Smith is, Rankin hasn't got the minerals, Bresnan has done very well for a glorified county trundler but will always look pedestrian on anything other than green tops and it is now or never for Finn. He either needs to get his action and form together or be consigned to County cricket. I'd say Cook should stand down too, if there was any obvious candidates to take over.

  • Glenn on January 3, 2014, 8:14 GMT

    Well, you got your wish, Vinay. England still let Australia off the hook again...

  • Dummy4 on January 3, 2014, 7:47 GMT

    Is Vinay an English selector? Right on the money!

  • Dummy4 on January 3, 2014, 4:31 GMT

    Replace Cook as captain with Broad and bring in Finn for bresman

  • Jim on January 3, 2014, 2:02 GMT

    Consider this tour a white wash although the 5 test is being played now. England display nothing but high school cricket, changing the management staff will not do the job, here is my suggestion. Give the capt. To anderson, open with bell/carberry, cook, root, kp, keep the rest as it. Before all this is done, reduce all the salaries by 25%, including the management. You have to treat this as a business and study how the corp world works and functions. If you do not make a profit, you cut cost, if the losses continues, you will be forced to close the doors. Not winning is exactly the same as not making a profit, the customer, the fans, will stay away. The heads/confidence of all the english players are non functioning now, they all need to be tuned up by what I will refer to as a shock treatment. While aus was on the drawing board planning their attack, england was basking in the old glory of their previous wins.

  • John on January 3, 2014, 0:47 GMT

    @Sri_chicago on (January 2, 2014, 18:42 GMT), perhaps you should read other people's comments instead of spending so much time sitting around being baffled. Loads of people have commented on Compton's omission on various stories on this site ever since it happened. The consensus is that he was considered to be too intense a character and not a positive influence overall on the team. If that's the case, the fact that the team have done poorly without him is not proof that that was the wrong decision. Also, those who advocate for Compton assume that he would have done better than Carberry but he's been England second-highest run scorer. Are we really confident that Compton, who obviously had his own mental battle going on, would have done any better? Maybe the management thought that, with Trott already struggling with psychological issues, having another player who might self-destruct was too much.

  • Ivan on January 2, 2014, 22:44 GMT

    The thought of dropping Carberry is surely an act of lack of heart by any selection panel. He is one of the few batters who has stood up to the might of Johnson on the opening sessions thereby making it easier for the middle order to bat. Surely Cards does not deserve that. We all know that he is a late inclusion to test cricket, but what of Rogers? And to think of his second highest aggregate on tour, surely it will be unfortunate.

  • Dummy4 on January 2, 2014, 21:52 GMT

    England's line up in 2005 was Harmison,Hoggard,Flintoff and Jones plus this series it should have been Finn,Anderson,Broad,Stokes and Swann...Finn and Broad should have been told to bowl as quick as possible and Anderson and Stokes the stock bowlers if the ball didnt swing..later reverse swing could have worked as well and Swann would have been under less pressure.

    I dont see a future in KP being fact i think his attention will turn more towards shorter form cricket and retiring at the 2015 world cup...he has been a leading and controversial player but a match winner in the Ashes since 2005...the only test series i dont recall him winning was against S.A.

  • john on January 2, 2014, 21:50 GMT

    Scott Borthwick is a leg spinner ane English leg spinners are rarely successful, there have been some good leg spinners from Pakistan and India and of course Shane Warne of Australia the most successful test bowler ever, but he was an exception the general level of leg spinner from Australia and England are very poor and incapable of bowling in test cricket without giving an easy 4 ball an over. If Borthwick plays he will be an Ian Salisbury just not good enough and after a 4-0 drubbing in 4 tests in an away Ashes series, make it 5-0 if Borthwick plays the aussie batsmen will have a field day hitting him for at least 2 4s an over as they are so confident about winning the 5th test, and they should be after the rubbish Anderson and Bresnan have bowled this series.

  • Dummy4 on January 2, 2014, 20:59 GMT

    said it before use local talent, Robson to open with Cook, Ali , Rankin & Borthwick for Panesar, Bresnan, Root, and coach to loose up. cheers

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