England v Australia, 3rd Investec Test, Old Trafford, 4th day August 4, 2013

Good but not great

Although the Ashes are almost within their grasp, there are obvious areas in which this England side can improve

It is probably an odd time to find fault with England. Barring a miracle - and the weather forecast suggests it will take a miracle for there to be much play on day five of this Test - England should retain the Ashes at Old Trafford on Monday. They will have stretched their unbeaten record to 11 successive Tests and given themselves a decent chance of finishing the series back up at No. 2 in the Test rankings. They are a good side deserving of praise.

But if they want to take the next step, if they want to progress from good to great and extend their period of relative success well into the future, it may be time to assess what they are doing well, what they can do better and take steps now to strengthen and improve.

England have not been at their best in this series. They have not needed to be. Australia have shown improvement and have a couple of young players who could go on to form the basis of a competitive side in the future. For now, though, they are at one of the lowest ebbs in their history and success against them should be taken in context. It does not make England a great side.

If they are to beat South Africa home and away - probably the ultimate test of a team right now - if they are to win regularly in Asia - a major problem for England teams despite the excellence of the performance in India recently - they cannot accept what they have. They need to improve.

A key part of doing that will be to ease the burden on their four-man attack. Over the last year, three of the four have endured lengthy injury lay-offs and it has been noticeable that the potency of the attack has reduced as this series has progressed. It is telling that James Anderson (128.5 overs) and Graeme Swann (173), indisputably England's best bowlers, have delivered the most overs in the series and, in the first innings of this Test, Anderson returned the worst figures of his career. They are being asked to carry too heavy a burden.

A four-man attack has served England well. It helped them reach No. 1 in the world Test rankings, it helped them win a Test series in India and it looks as if it will help them to win three successive Ashes series. It may be the least bad option England have when selecting sides at present, but there is no way it is ideal.

For a start it relies a great deal on the excellence of a couple of players. There is, for example, no substitute for Anderson should he suffer injury and his absence might well expose a four-man attack as limited and missing the necessary skill or variety to regularly win the biggest Tests.

There are times when it leaves England without options in the field, too. Unless this seam attack can find lateral movement, whether by seam or any form of swing, they are reliant simply on containment and waiting for mistakes from the opposition. There is currently no one with the pace, the height or, perhaps, the left-arm angle to unlock batsmen in unhelpful bowling conditions. While there are few tall left-arm fast bowlers in the county game at present, England do have the option of players such as Chris Tremlett, Boyd Rankin and Steven Finn who can, when fit and firing, unsettle batsmen even on placid surfaces.

A four-man attack is a risk, too. If one of them is injured during the game, it increases the burden on the remaining members of the side to unreasonable levels. That, in turn, can encourage bowlers to attempt to ignore minor injuries, which increases the risk of sustaining more serious injury.

The ideal scenario would be to develop an allrounder. While there are candidates in the county game, each of them has a major caveat.

Chris Woakes seems to lack the pace and consistency to trouble good batsmen on the flattest of Test wickets; Ravi Bopara lacks potency with the ball; Rikki Clarke is deemed, probably unfairly, as lacking the bowling quality; and Ben Stokes, who may be the most likely candidate in the future, remains a work in progress. He does have the pace, though, and a first-class batting average of 35 and bowling average of 27 is not to be dismissed. Perhaps of more concern, is that he has not looked completely comfortable on the international stage in his nine limited-overs appearances.

Long-term, Warwickshire's left-arm swing bowler Keith Barker, arguably the most dangerous new-ball exponent in county cricket at present, might be worth consideration.

Another option - one England are loathe to take - would be to push Matt Prior up to No. 6 and play a specialist five-man attack. They do, after all, already possess several bowlers with a more than acceptable claim as batsmen - the likes of Stuart Broad, Swann and Tim Bresnan - which offers some solidity even if the top-order batting fails.

There are several reasons they do not take such an approach. The first is that Prior, at No. 7, is given the ability to play his natural, positive game without the responsibility of a top-order batsman, while they also prefer the security of the extra batsman in the knowledge that it helps them secure draws from tough situations, build imposing scores in others and that they have the bowling attack to cope with the burden.

The other reason is one of England key problems of late: their top-order batting has not been reliably consistent. Indeed, you could make a strong argument to suggest it has not been consistently good since the series against India in the summer of 2011. While most batsmen succeeded eventually on the tour of India at the end of 2012, there was no time when all of them were in form at the same time.

The selectors have to strike a balance between the benefits of continuity of selection and the dangers of complacency. There is, at present, little evidence to suggest they are getting that wrong. And while the top-order batting remains unreliable, it is perverse to weaken it further by replacing a batsman with a bowler.

There is no obvious solution to that problem. At least six of England's top seven - all but Jonny Bairstow - can make very strong arguments for their retention on the grounds of either outstanding records (the likes of Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell) or outstanding promise (Joe Root). Even Bairstow, at the age of 23, can be allowed the benefit of the doubt as he is learning his trade at present and came into this series hopelessly short of first-class cricket.

That may well be the crux of the problem. England went into this series, like so many, on the back of a diet of limited-overs cricket. Their players were weary, mentally as much as physically, while also out of touch with the rigours of the red-ball game. England's schedule, based on the premise of making the most money, not the best cricket, remains a major impediment to progress. If they really want to go the next step, they need to find a way to ease the burden on their top players.

Reducing the schedule significantly is not realistic at present. The ECB requires the money for many reasons - most of them very good - and any reduction in fees would have consequences for the county game, the women's game, the grassroots game and even disability cricket. A successful England team pays for much of the rest of the English system.

The other solution would be to allow the players to specialise; to allow them to give up at least one format of the game in order to concentrate on another. But England currently have a policy that obliges players to be available for both limited-overs formats or neither and some players would be reluctant to forgo the financial rewards of playing less often.

But if England really want to progress as a side, if they really want to go from good to great, these are the problems for which they need to find solutions.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo