For the second successive summer England have won more Tests than they have lost but it would be inaccurate and misleading to suggest the statistics are that of a team making progress. In each of the last two summers, series against high-ranking sides have been lost, making England a Tottenham Hotspur type of team – too good for Test also-rans like New Zealand and West Indies and not yet up to the challenges South Africa and India currently offer.
Unlike Tottenham, England do have the potential to compete with the best teams in their sport but if they are to do so considerable improvements need to be made. Monday's victory at The Oval gave Kevin Pietersen's reign as England captain an encouraging start but the win has to be treated in isolation, not as a signal that Pietersen's England are about to embark on a momentous journey which will culminate in world domination.
Pietersen, seemingly, already has his eyes fixed on next summer's Ashes but there is a danger that he will suffer a couple of heavy falls over the next few months if he spends too much time dreaming about the future, starting with next week's five match one-day series against South Africa. Graeme Smith's side will overtake Australia and become the number one ranked one-day side in the world if they defeat England comprehensively and, when the hosts' indifferent limited over form is considered, a walloping at the hands of South Africa is not out of the question. Such a result would partially deflate Pietersen's pumped up tyres.
It is three months until England play their next Test, against India in Ahmedabad, and 11 months before the 2009 Ashes begin, so plenty can change. Even so the sight of Stephen Harmison and Andrew Flintoff bowling in tandem is one to fill every England supporter with enthusiasm. For both it is still early days. Flintoff is only three Tests in to a comeback and Harmison has bowled well on a helpful pitch in one game. If the pair are performing to their maximum after successful winter tours of India and the West Indies then there is a place for genuine optimism.
The strongest part of England's game is their fast bowling. James Anderson has had an excellent summer, taking 34 wickets in seven Tests, Stuart Broad continues to make progress, albeit slower than expected with the ball, and Ryan Sidebottom remains a fine bowler. There are other capable bowlers in county cricket too. This week's England Lions game against South Africa would have given Simon Jones an opportunity to impress but a hamstring injury has ruled him out. Lancashire's Sajid Mahmood, Durham's Graeme Onions and Hampshire's Chris Tremlett have plenty to offer too.
It is the other areas of England's cricket that give cause for concern. Monty Panesar's figures this summer – 22 wickets at an average of 29.86 – suggest he has performed admirably, but he has not.
Panesar will retain his place in the England side because he remains the best slow bowler in the country but his cricket is not going anywhere. If anything Panesar's batting and fielding have gone backwards in the past 12 months. The crowds still love him but the cheers that greet his every action are now becoming rather tedious and embarrassing. It does not help Panesar, who looks as nervous as a trapeze artist taking his first walk every time the ball comes his way.
These shortcomings would be happily tolerated if Panesar was bowling well and winning matches, which he is not. Shane Warne's damning assessment of Panesar is just about right. Warne suggested that Panesar does not look like a bowler who has played 33 Tests, but a bowler who has played the same Test 33 times. He does not appear to be learning from previous mistakes or developing his game. Peter Moores, the England coach, needs to find someone, a mentor of some description, who will encourage him to bowl with greater variety. Australia have lost a couple of key batsmen but their line-up next summer will still be extremely strong.
The wicket-keeping position is one that can and will be changed. Tim Ambrose is a popular member of the team and he has kept wicket well, but in the modern game stumpers have to score runs and Ambrose has not scored enough. Matthew Prior is expected to take his place in India, a move that would make it easier for England to play five bowlers. Pietersen benefited from having a five-man bowling attack at The Oval. It is in the field where the captain is truly tested and it is always good to have plenty of options. Playing Prior would help compensate for Flintoff's uncertain form, and allow Broad to bat at eight too.
But it is in the batting department that England have the most work to do. Pietersen and Paul Collingwood batted well in England's first innings at The Oval, but the 53 runs Harmison and Anderson added for the ninth wicket should not be underestimated. Chasing 250 rather than 197 on the final day would have been a difficult task. England are expected to continue with the top five they have but these players need pushing.
Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook scored one hundred in 22 innings this summer while Collingwood saved his Test career with a 135 in the third Test against South Africa. Ian Bell promised a lot after his 199 at Lord's but in his next six innings struck just 133 runs.
The only batsman England can rely on is Pietersen, and it is never wise to invest everything you have in a single commodity. The hundred at The Oval showed he can cope with the dual responsibilities of being captain and star batsman, but it would be a major surprise if the job did not at some stage take its toll. Michael Atherton, Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan, Pietersen's predecessors – Alec Stewart only captained for a short period – were each extremely tough, driven men. Pietersen is ambitious too, but there is a more sensitive side to his nature that the others did not have as captains. Pietersen will worry about what is said and written about him while the others did not really give a damn.
Pietersen the batsman is Pietersen the captain's biggest asset. His value as a batsman cannot be underestimated. England have lost 15 of the 43 Tests Pietersen has played in and in those games he averages 38, 12 runs an innings fewer than his career mean. If England are to push Australia hard in 11 months time Pietersen must get the best out of himself as well as his team.
Winners and losers: Three who advanced their cause against South Africa...
The big stage continues to bring the very best out of Pietersen. In his first innings against his country of birth he scored a hundred, as he did in his debut as captain. As a batsman he is good enough to turn it on when he wants. He is an emotional captain and the job could drain him if he is not careful.
Harmison only played in the final Test but had he failed to perform his career as an international cricketer could have been over. Instead great things are once again expected of him, not least by Pietersen – his new captain and best friend. How Harmison fares in India in December will be very revealing.
It was great to see Flintoff bowling and batting with freedom in the series but the most encouraging sight was of him not being troubled by his left ankle. If that problem has disappeared England can look forward to several more years of service. Flintoff's bowling was good but his batting still looks ropy.
...and three whose causes may be lost
It would be a major surprise if Ambrose was picked for this winter's pre-Christmas tour of India. The glovework of the England keeper was excellent throughout the series but 97 runs at an average of 16 is not good enough. Ambrose's place in the team looks set to go to Matthew Prior or James Foster.
It's hoped that Vaughan gets another chance to play for England; he deserves better than the exit afforded him when he stood down as captain. His figures against South Africa were dreadful – 40 runs at an average of 8 – and to regain his place he will need to score plenty of runs for Yorkshire, a challenge in itself.
A fighting 58 on the final day of the series was probably enough to get him on the Test tour of India. Strauss struggled against South Africa, scoring just 180 runs at an average of 26, and a couple of his previous problems – getting out in the twenties and seeming vulnerable outside off stump – returned.
How they rated
Angus Fraser marks England's players against South Africa:
A J Strauss 4 out of 10
A N Cook 7/10
M P Vaughan 2/10
K P Pietersen 9/10
I R Bell 7/10
P D Collingwood 7/10
A Flintoff 6/10
T R Ambrose 3/10
S C J Broad 5/10
R J Sidebottom 5/10
J M Anderson 7/10
M S Panesar 5/10
D J Pattinson 4/10
S J Harmison 7/10