England v India, 5th Investec Test, The Oval, 3rd day August 17, 2014

England emerge from the darkness

Having been in chaos three Tests ago, England can take credit, pride and encouragement from this result

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Perhaps the darkest hour really is right before dawn. Exactly a month since England succumbed to one of the more depressing Test defeats of recent years at Lord's, they clinched the Investec series with a crushing victory at The Oval. It is their first series victory in a year.

Any celebration must be tempered by the knowledge that India offered painfully weak opposition. We knew before they arrived that their away record was poor, but to succumb to a second successive innings defeat - this victory was the fifth biggest, in terms of innings margins, England have achieved - to be bowled out within a session's worth of cricket, to fail to reach 200 in any of their last five innings, tells a sorry tale of a side ill-prepared for a Test series in these conditions and chronically lacking in confidence. England will face far tougher challenges.

Until they alter their priorities, until they start to value Test cricket more than the revenue they make from other formats, India are unlikely to provide healthy competition.

Such an impression is confirmed by the rankings. England are likely to be placed third when the new list is announced, a long way behind South Africa and Australia and only just ahead of Pakistan. They face all three teams in 2015, with the series against Pakistan and South Africa to be played away from home. By the end of next year, we will have a far clearer indication of England place in the new world order.

Nobody thinks this is the end of the journey. Nobody think England have arrived. Nobody think Michael Clarke and Mitchell Johnson are quaking in their boots.

But there is sometimes a temptation to downplay England's successes. To explain them away. To suggest that they are hopeless when they lose, but that their victories only come against hopeless teams.

That is a little unfair. This victory has come against an India team that played beautifully at Lord's; that harnessed English conditions better than England. An Indian team that is the best financed in world cricket; that represents the most populous cricket-playing nation. A team that contains several highly talented batsmen - the likes of Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli - who most expect to go on and enjoy wonderful careers. A team that contains two other technically excellent batsmen - Murali Vijay and Ajinkya Rahane - and a seam attack - Varun Aaron, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Ishant Sharma, in particular - who performed admirably without support from their awful slip fielders.

So, from where they were, at the end of the Lord's Test, England can take credit, pride and encouragement in this performance. After Lord's, England had lost seven of their previous nine Tests. They had won none of their last 10. There were doubts about the position of the captain, the wicketkeeper, the spinner and a couple of the seamers. There was growing clamour for the resignation of Alastair Cook and the recall of Kevin Pietersen. They were in chaos.

They have learned a great deal since then. They learned that their young batsmen - Joe Root, Gary Ballance and Jos Buttler - have what it takes to flourish at Test level. While they will face sterner tests, it would be no surprise if that trio spent a decade in this side. Their slip catching may also win a few games.

They were reminded of the value of continuity of selection. They found that Moeen Ali, Chris Jordan and Chris Woakes all began to perform more consistently once they felt a little more established within the side. They learned that Moeen has the skill and character to prosper, that Woakes and Jordan, excellent on the final day, can offer the support James Anderson and Stuart Broad require.

They were reminded, too, of the value of using home conditions. After the first three Tests of the summer were played on slow, low, lifeless surfaces, England squandered more benevolent conditions at Lord's. But from then they dominated in conditions offering movement and just enough bounce to test the opposition batsmen's technique and temperament.

While there may be a temptation to prepare more lifeless surfaces ahead of the Ashes next year - the sort of surfaces designed to negate Mitchell Johnson et al - it must be resisted. For their morale, if nothing else, England need to feel they can hurt opposition with the ball. If the ball swings or the pitches offer seam, they have a chance next summer.

And they learned, if there was any doubt, that their captain is a man of rare determination.

Some questions remain. Not least, the form of the opening batsmen. Cook has not made a Test century in 31 innings and, even after three half-centuries in four innings, the sense remains that it is his luck that has turned rather than his form. He and Sam Robson will have to contribute far more if England are to continue to climb back up the Test rankings.

There will be some bleak days in 2015. There will be days when Buttler drops chances that Matt Prior, at his best, might have caught. There will be days when Moeen struggles to retain control, when Woakes struggles for potency and when the middle order show their relative inexperience.

But England have shown in the last month that they are heading in the right direction. If they hold their course, if they stick to their plans and retain faith in one another, this need not be the high point on their journey.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo