Downton searching for a ray 
of World Cup hope

England in the nets at Headingley ahead of today's final one-dayer against India. Picture: Dave Williams.
England in the nets at Headingley ahead of today's final one-dayer against India. Picture: Dave Williams.
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AS England practised beneath grey clouds at Headingley yesterday, the skyscape seemed particularly appropriate.

This has been a gloomy few days for English cricket, ones in which the euphoria of the turnaround Test win over India have been replaced by the disappointment of the dismal showings against the same opponents in the one-day series.

England go into the fifth and final one-day international at Headingley today 3-0 down and with seemingly about as much chance of lifting the World Cup next Spring as Steven Gerrard had of raising aloft its footballing equivalent in Brazil earlier this summer.

Why, had it not hosed it down in Bristol for the first one-day international, England would probably be 4-0 down and facing the prospect of a humiliating whitewash.

There was purpose but no palpable sense of pizzazz about England as they went through their practice routines here yesterday.

How could there be when they have taken a pummelling from pillar to post, one that has left the majority of pundits insisting they have the wrong captain in Alastair Cook and a side that is some way shy of the best at England’s disposal.

Perhaps the players were simply tired of the endless practice drills, the interminable round of throwdowns and fielding routines that take place amid all manner of backroom staff and officials.

It is not so much more practice that England need as a different set of priorities, one that involves a root-and-branch shake-up of their one-day strategy.

Ultimately, it will be for Paul Downton, the managing director of English cricket, along with the England selectors, to determine what happens next.

Downton was here yesterday, suited-and-booted with a laptop case slung over his right shoulder, looking on as Cook and his men practised in nets on the outfield.

As he stood semi-motionless in front of the pavilion, locked in conversation with a member of the England backroom team, Downton had the air of a businessman standing on the edge of a railway platform waiting for the 5.59am train to take him into The City.

He will have much to ponder after this series, most notably whether Cook remains the right man to lead after personally presiding over five successive one-day series defeats.

As ever, the question is: if not Cook, then who?

Eoin Morgan has lately struggled for runs, Ian Bell is no more of a natural leader than Cook, and there is a shortage of viable candidates.

But the thinking is not so much that Cook should be chopped as conserved with an eye on the strenuous mental and physical demands of Test cricket, which peak with an Ashes series next summer.

Michael Atherton, who knows a thing or two about the demands heaped on an England captain, believes splitting the captaincy is the best way forward, arguing that England play 17 Tests between next April and December and that Test and one-day cricket are totally different games demanding totally different philosophies and plans.

It is difficult to argue with that, or the fact that England have not played the positive brand of cricket promised when Peter Moores returned as head coach in place of Andy Flower.

Graeme Swann has labelled their strategy in one-day matches as “boring and embarrassing”, which pretty much captures the national mood.

Until England change their methods and mindset, look at how other teams play one-day cricket and appreciate that the strike-rates of their own batsmen are lagging behind the world, with the exception of such as Alex Hales, they do not have a hope of winning the World Cup.

Perhaps not just a different captain is required but a different coach too, leaving Moores to concentrate on the Test team while someone more dynamic oversees one-day affairs.

Who knows, England may win today’s game and the cow may jump over the moon, but will anything appreciable change in the next few months?

In reality, even if England lose in Leeds, the same tired old mantras will doubtless be trotted out after close of play.

“We’ve got the players, we’re just not producing the performances at the moment” ... “We’re not a million miles away from getting things right” ... And so on.

In the meantime, the most advantageous build-up to a World Cup campaign in history, with England playing no Test cricket between now and next Spring when they visit the West Indies, is in danger of being spectacularly squandered.

Watching England go about their business yesterday, there seemed to be a going-through-the-motions feel about things, a sense that they cannot get this series over soon enough.

There were one or two smiles among the players and coaches, but even those seemed somewhat forced at times, as though people were practising their smiles as well as their strokes.

Towards the end of the session, the grey clouds temporarily lifted above the famous old ground and the odd shaft of sunlight broke through before the weather rapidly reverted to type.

England’s cricketers enjoyed the sun while it lasted; there has not been too much sunshine around their one-day side lately.