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Nine wickets in a dramatic session saw England surge to a series victory, but that should not be allowed to gloss over the issues raised against Australia
George Dobell at Chester-le-Street
August 12, 2013
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As the champagne corks flew and the England team celebrated, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that this is the golden age of English cricket.
After all, England have not just retained the Ashes, they have done so for the third time in succession. They have won this series 3-0 with a game to spare and, underAlastair Cook's fledgling captaincy, they have gone 12 Tests unbeaten in a stretch that includes a series win in India. What is more, their team contains three men with 20 or more Test centuries and three with more than 200 Test wickets. For England, at least, it really doesn't get any better.
They may be on the brink of further achievements, too. If England win the final Investec Test at The Oval, they will be the first England side to win four Ashes Tests in a home series. And, if they prevail in Australia, Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen will, fitness permitting, have played a part in five Ashes- winning sides. No England players have won more. England also require only a draw at The Oval to move back above India to second place in the Test ranking table.
There have been some hugely impressive performances from England players over recent days. Bell, who has now played three match-defining innings in the series without winning a Man-of-the-Match award, is fast developing into the batsman his talent suggested he could a decade ago. It would be premature to label him a 'great' - he has unfinished business against quality spin bowling and the newer, harder ball - but he has taken a significant step in that direction in this series. His batting has been the key difference between the sides.
Stuart Broad, too, enjoyed a wonderful game. It was Broad, bowling with pace, persistence and skill, who provided the impetus for England to claim nine wickets after tea on the fourth day of this game with a spell of 5 for 20 in 40 balls. Topping 90mph at times, Broad looked every inch the fine Test bowler his talent has long suggested he could become. His match haul - 11 for 121 - was his best in Tests to date. If he could add consistency to his list of attributes, England would have a special bowler.
In the light of such facts, any criticism seems churlish. But the truth is that there was nothing straightforward about this result. The 3-0 margin does not reflect the ever-improving competitiveness of the Australian team or England's enduring problems with their top-order batting. It does not reflect that Australia have led on first innings in three of the four Tests; that four of England's top seven averaged under 30 and only one of them above 40 or that, by the end of this match, James Anderson looked a shadow of the man who started the series and that Steven Finn, supposedly the future of England's fast bowling, could not even make a 13-man squad containing five seamers.
Most of all, though, it does not reflect the fact that this was a modest Australia team. While the bowling of Ryan Harris, in particular, has underlined the worth of their bowling attack, there is no avoiding the conclusion that this is the weakest Australia batting line-up to contest an Ashes series in England for many years. Any analysis of England's performance has to recognise that.
That may be no bad thing. England have been down this route before. By the end of 2011 they had enjoyed a series of fine victories and dared to look too far into the future with talk of establishing a legacy. Such hubris came back to bite them hard.
This time they know they are not the finished article. They know that Jonny Bairstow's credentials as a Test batsman are unproven, they know that Joe Root's development as a Test opener remain a work in progress and they may be in the process of learning that the burden placed upon the individual components of a four-man attack is unsustainable.
Most of all, they know that one or two of their players are considerably nearer the end of their Test careers than the beginning. This just might prove to be Graeme Swann's final home Test series. History tells us that no player is irreplaceable, but quite how England find a replacement for Swann remains a mystery. It is as close to mystery spin as England can go.
There have been times in this series when England have looked flat and uninspired on the field, too. When they have looked timid with the bat and impotent with the ball. When the somewhat prescriptive - overbearing, even - nature of their coaching set-up has appeared to stifle creativity and limit England to a pragmatic team playing percentage cricket. That will be fine against modest opposition but against the best, against South Africa, it will leave them short. It leaves them a good, but not great, side.
They can be better than that. In Cook and Pietersen they possess great batsman. In Swann they possess the finest spin bowler England have had for decades. In Broad and Bell and Anderson and Jonathan Trott they have players who, freed from the fear of failure, have the talent and temperament to play Test cricket with distinction. England have rarely coaxed the best out of many of those players in recent times. They can improve.
Andy Flower has been at the centre of just about everything good to happen in English cricket over the last five or six years. No England coach has come close to emulating his achievements and his record invites no argument about his future.
But even Flower needs to reinvent himself. Even Flower needs to reflect on the environment in the England camp and decide whether it remains conducive to bringing the best out of his players. If England conclude that recent results justify a continuation of current methods, they will not fulfil their considerable potential.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: George Dobell
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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