India v England, 3rd Test, Kolkata, 5th day December 9, 2012

England rewarded after learning harsh lessons

Much of 2012 has not been a year for England's Test team to remember fondly, but a stunning turnaround in India leaves them within touching distance of a famous result

The sight of players from the England squad training even as the closing ceremony took place in Kolkata spoke volumes. While one side looked tired and dispirited, the other looked hungry and motivated.

It is often unwise to read too much into one moment, but this was not an atypical episode. England, stung into action by some humbling defeats this year, know their work is only just beginning. India are only just waking to the task ahead.

Quite where this victory leaves England is a moot point. It is impressive that England have surpassed 400 runs in three consecutive completed innings. It is impressive that they have completed the first back-to-back defeats on India in India since South Africa in 2000 or, as an England side, since 1976-77. It is impressive that they have regrouped since the fallout of the summer and that, after the disappointment of Ahmedabad, they have out-batted, out-fielded and out-bowled their opponents both with seam and swing.

But it is worth remembering how thin the margins between success and failure can be. The overwhelming contribution of Alastair Cook might have been prevented had Cheteshwar Pujara caught him on 17 and, wonderfully well though James Anderson bowled - he has rarely bowled better - to claim three wickets in the first innings, India might reflect that all seven of their remaining first innings wickets fell to largely self-inflicted errors. It is rare, too, that England will come up against a team that fields so poorly as India did on the second day.

And, excellent though England have been in the last two Tests, the fact remains that this series is not yet decided and they have lost seven Tests this year. The manner in which they stumbled on their short road to victory on the final day also hinted that their issues against spin bowling are not completely resolved. They remain a work in progress.

The encouraging thing from an England perspective is that they know it. If they have learned one thing in the last year, it is that they are not as good as they thought they were. They now know they cannot afford to take their eye off the road. All the talk of legacy, talk that seemed sensible enough at the time following the Ashes success and the defeat of India, has been replaced. Instead of a long term vision, we hear talk of relentless hard work. It is not quite as appealing a slogan, but it is probably a more sensible recipe for success.

Perhaps, after the success of 2010 and 2011 - winning the World Twenty20 and being ranked the No.1 Test side - a sense of hubris had enveloped English cricket, its media as much as its players, and 2012 was the wake-up call that was required. As Alastair Cook put it: "cricket has got a certain way of biting you in the arse." You sense that complacency is not a mood that Cook or Andy Flower, the coach, will allow to be repeated.

Certainly Cook was in no mood to celebrate after the victory in Kolkata. While he welcomed the improvements, he also remained focused on the series-deciding Test in Nagpur only a few days away. "The job is not done," he said. "It would be nice to be going home tomorrow but it's not done and we can't get too carried away.

Hard work and common sense are recurring themes in Cook's conversation. He knows there is rarely a silver bullet solution and instead stressed the importance of more prosaic skills

"We can't keep patting ourselves on the back. It's not the time to do it. We've another challenge very quickly around the corner. We're going to have to recover well and go into the Nagpur Test believing we can win.

"We are going in the right direction. I said at the beginning of the tour and I'll keep saying it: we're going to have to keep improving and keep trying to work hard."

Hard work and common sense are recurring themes in Cook's conversation. He knows there is rarely a silver bullet solution and instead stressed the importance of more prosaic skills: working hard in training and occupying the crease in matches.

There were, however, a couple of specific episodes that Cook identified as turning points in his own fortunes and that of his team. Interestingly, both of them were failures. For the team, the debacle of the whitewash at the hands of Pakistan in the UAE provided a jolt that could not be denied. As an individual, being dropped from the England ODI side in 2010 sparked a period of learning that, he believes, helped him develop into the record-breaking batsman he has become.

"The first thing was to have a real realisation of the problem against playing spin," Cook said, reflecting on England's problems in the UAE. "It probably wasn't as big as everyone made out, but we - all of us as a batting unit - had to have a look at our technique against spin and work out a method that suited each individual player. The work we did - and I know we didn't get the results in the UAE or in Sri Lanka - we're now starting to get the results from that now. These things don't happen overnight.

"We have had a tough 2012. The fact we have been able to rectify a few of our problems so quickly is a credit to our coaching staff and the leadership of Andy Flower. It's credit to the players, too, with a new captain. Things are slightly different, everyone has stuck together. I can't praise them enough."

Cook, who described his first innings run-out as "dopey" and "embarrassing", credited a spell back in the county game as the key to his development as a batsman. Dropped from the England limited-overs squad, he realised that he had to improve his range of stroke if he was to progress. As he learned, so his confidence grew.

"I put it back to when I got left out of the England one-day side," he said. "I played a lot of T20 cricket for Essex and that forced me to expand my game. That helped, I was forced to take on shots and realised I could play them. I didn't have the confidence to play them in a four-day or five-day game. I have worked very hard alongside Graham Gooch and maybe surprised myself when a few of those went for six the other day."

There is a lesson there for Stuart Broad, in particular. An extravagantly talented cricketer who should yet have a bright international future, Broad has lost his way a little of late. The example of Cook should remind him, however, that with hard work and a determination to find improvement rather than excuses, this episode could be the making of him.

There may be a lesson there for India, too. Panic is rarely constructive, but an acknowledgement of the problem is often the first step towards recovery. All too often, India appear like a sick man with a persistent cough who refuses to go to the doctor. A reflection of how England, on the brink of their worst year in Test history, have turned things around, would not be such a bad place to start.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo