England v Australia, 4th Investec Test, Durham, 4th day August 12, 2013

A magical session, but England can get better

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

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 ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • John on August 15, 2013, 7:45 GMT

    @Chris_P / Landl - It's really difficult to predict (5 years time). Some players mature late and some don't go on to fulfil early potential. I will though say (playing devil's advocate) that of the Eng names Landl mentioned only Root and Finn look definite test class. Maybe SA do have depth , just that it's not needed right now. Also re Cook being 28/Broad 27 - AB is 29 and VP and MM are each 28 and Amla is 30 so not all SA players are close to retirement. Steyn will be a huge loss but he may have some time to go. From Eng's perspective , the one player I fear will be hard to replace is Swann

  • John on August 14, 2013, 18:23 GMT

    A couple of comms saying this is the best Eng side in recent decades. I strongly disagree. I would say the Ashes 2005 line up (pre the last test) was better. Better captain , better formation , better tactics/mindset and they beat unarguably a top Australian side . Now , if you replaced Giles and G Jones with Swann and Prior you really would be cooking.

  • Dummy4 on August 14, 2013, 15:41 GMT

    Perhaps this is the Golden Age of English cricket. Perhaps we aren't ever going to be a nation who can bat a side into submission a la India or the Waugh/Ponting Australians. Perhaps we aren't ever going to be a team with immortals like Tendulkar, Gilchrist, Warne, McGrath etc. We won't ever have a pace battery to terrify all before us like the West Indies. What we do have is a team full of personalities. There is no team with quite such a mix of people in it and this comes over on the pitch and away in interviews. Be they mercurial genius types like KP, the joker in Swann, the pantomime villain Broad, they do gel well together. More crucially, their erratic nature means we can plumb the depths one Test and hit the heights in the next. There is no better Test team to watch right now and that's been true for a number of years. If you want drama, England give it to you by the bucketload.

  • steve on August 14, 2013, 13:12 GMT

    @David Brumby - so the other back to back ashes series count for nothing either - even when England were playing a team much stronger than the current one - myopia seems to affecting those 'little grey cells'.

  • John on August 14, 2013, 0:23 GMT

    I fully agree - ENG can definitely improve. They have good bowling and batting depth at the moment. OZ have been reasonably lucky that your batting line-up hasn't fully clicked into gear thus far - when they do, we'll be chasing 600+. I just hope OZ can manage a draw (or win) in the last test. @Ramski1 - pretty well summed up. ENG are a far better side than OZ at the moment, that's an undeniable fact, and anybody who thinks otherwise is delusional at best. Bell and Swann have been the best two performers for ENG. I still can't believe how well Bell is batting - he'll do well in OZ as well. I reckon it will be 3-0 or 3-1 to ENG in the return series. The next time you fellas play SA (in SA I presume) should be an absolute humdinger of a series. I rate ENG a better test side than IND at the moment (in all conditions).

  • Freeza on August 14, 2013, 0:21 GMT

    Its a shame that we (New Zealand) didn't pick up that last wicket in Auckland, because now that series just gets overlooked when the fact of the matter is England were dominated in 2 of the 3 tests and should have lost that series. I still think they are a long way away from South Africa, and their winter in 2012 (where they lost 3-0 to Pakistan and drew with a weak Sri Lankan side) can't be forgotten so easily.

  • Dummy4 on August 13, 2013, 23:31 GMT

    @TheBigBoodha on (August 13, 2013, 8:38 GMT)

    To say these two side have been even, and the only decider luck is moronic. Granted each side has thrown the advantage to the other team on numerous occasions, but each time the Australians have looked beat they have been, and each time England have looked beat someone has stepped up. That's the difference between the sides: stepping up when the chips are down. I think the Australians call it "mongrel" don't they?

  • Rob on August 13, 2013, 22:55 GMT

    likeintcricket on (August 13, 2013, 19:04 GMT) I would agree re: England v SA last year, England on the basis of the series were clearly second best. As for Pakistan "batsmen flourishing" only one of them averaged above 40 so I would say they merely struggled slightly less and the first 2 tests England could easily have won, but failed. It seems whenever England do well at anything it is due to luck but when they lose luck has no part in it, strange that.

  • Muhammad on August 13, 2013, 21:53 GMT

    great win by england... just awesome and amazing

  • Geoffrey on August 13, 2013, 21:32 GMT

    @Front-Foot-Lunge- I agree mate it is sad that after heaping derision on England for the better part of 20 years, my countrymen can't also find it within themselves to praise a superior England cricket team. Seems as if most Aussies are happy to dish it out, but taking it in return just isn't in their rulebook. Sad, and I apologise on behalf of my countrymen.