Joe Root’s men face another difficult clash against a rampant Australia, who crushed them by an innings and 14 runs inside three days in the third Test at Melbourne to retain the Ashes with an unassailable 3-0 lead.
It followed heavy defeats in Brisbane and Adelaide, where batting collapses, poor fielding and questionable selections cost the tourists dearly.
They are facing a 5-0 whitewash, although rain forecast for Sydney could come to England’s rescue.
Veteran seamer Jimmy Anderson admitted that “the lads are pretty flat at the minute if I’m being brutally honest”.
“It can be difficult, especially for guys experiencing the Ashes for the first time,” he told English media. “That’s where the more senior players come in. We have to rally round, make sure everyone is in a good place and a good headspace to compete.
“We’ve just not been at the races. We’ve now got two games to do something about that,” he added.
Both sides have been hit by the coronavirus, which is surging in Sydney, with more than 20,000 cases being reported daily in New South Wales state.
Australia will be missing number five Travis Head after he tested positive in Melbourne.
England’s under-pressure coach Chris Silverwood — whose job is on the line — is also out of the Sydney clash after he reportedly tested positive too, the seventh to do so among the touring party.
They include three support staff — fast-bowling coach Jon Lewis, spin coach Jeetan Patel and strength and conditioning boss Darren Veness.
Batting coach Graham Thorpe is expected to take charge in the interim, and faces selection headaches.
England’s openers — Rory Burns, Zak Crawley and Haseeb Hameed — have all flopped this series, failing to give Dawid Malan and Root a platform to work off.
Their highest team total so far is just 297 and there have been no individual hundreds, with Malan and Root the only players to make half-centuries.
Thorpe admitted the batsmen have been given a “wake-up call”, reflected in their paltry 68 in the second innings at Melbourne.
“We are still trying to educate some of the younger guys into the rhythm of Test-match batting: playing situations in the game and doing it for long periods of time,” he told reporters.
“Some of them haven’t been able to do it yet.”
With Head missing, Australia called up Mitchell Marsh and Josh Inglis into the squad as cover, but the experienced Usman Khawaja will almost certainly replace him for his first Test since the 2019 Ashes.
“Hopefully I can go out there and score a hundred and do well for the team in the absence of ‘Heady’,” Khawaja said. “I’m in the best cricket conditioning I’ve been.”
Pat Cummins explains what goes into ensuring he’s at his peak for Australia’s all-important Ashes series.Dettol B… https://t.co/8rvXTuGsGF
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There was talk that the home team could hand leg-spinner Mitchell Swepson a debut on what is traditionally the most spin-friendly of the Australian Test venues.
But with showers forecast for the first four days, that now appears less likely, with the strong grass cover expected to make the pitch more fast-bowler friendly.
If recovered from a side strain, Josh Hazlewood will return to bolster Australia’s already strong bowling stocks.
If he isn’t quite ready, Scott Boland could retain his place after a remarkable 6-7 on debut in the Boxing Day Test, or Jhye Richardson — who grabbed a five-wicket haul in Adelaide — will return after being rested for Melbourne.
“I’ve got pretty good faith that if Hoff’s (Hazlewood) confident and he says he’s right to go, I think we back him in, he’s earned that trust,” said chief selector George Bailey.