India v England, 5th ODI, Dharamsala January 27, 2013

Quiet encouragement for England

Despite defeat in this series, England have developed a game plan that works and a method that can prosper

Any side that wants to be confirmed as the best in the world can never be satisfied with a series defeat but, bearing in mind England's ODI record in India and their weakened state, then they can depart India both quietly encouraged and slightly frustrated.

Yes, the final victory came in a dead rubber. Yes, this is an Indian side in something of transition. And yes, each of the five games in this series was won by the team that won the toss. For all those reasons, it would be wrong to read too much into these results or the fact that only decimal points separate England and India at the top of the ODI rankings table. It is success in global events that will continue to define limited-overs success.

But when England captain, Alastair Cook, spoke of "taking a lot of positives" from the series, it was not empty rhetoric. Not only had the new captain-coach partnership helped improve England's grim ODI record in India - England had not won any of their previous 13 ODIs against India in India; they had been beaten 5-0 in both their previous ODI series in India; and only once, in 1984, have they emerged victorious from an ODI series in the country - but they have shown they are on the right track.

Most importantly, England have shown they have a game plan that works. They have a team that exploit the new ODI playing regulations - two new balls and fewer fielders outside the ring - better than most. In English conditions, in particular, they look to have a side and method that can prosper. They may well start the Champions Trophy as favourites.

Their qualities were typified by Ian Bell in the final ODI. Bell's calm temperament and sound technique enabled him to withstand some testing bowling in helpful conditions and pace England's chase expertly. If there were any doubts about the make-up of England's top five in the Champions Trophy - and there really shouldn't have been - then Bell and Eoin Morgan should have dispelled them. Bell, it should be noted, was top scorer in both ODIs that England won, their top run-scorer in the series overall and top of the averages. While such players may not have been ideal openers in the ODI cricket of a few years ago, they may prove ideal now.

Certainly the pressure for Kevin Pietersen to return to opening position should have abated. It is true that his record as an ODI opener - albeit from a brief sample size - is a great deal better than his record as a middle-order player. In his eight ODIs as an opener, Pietersen averages 58.85; in his 29 ODIs at No. 3 he averages 28.85 and in his 94 ODIs batting between No. 4 and No. 7, he averages 45.17. In normal circumstances there might be a decent argument for promoting him back to open. But against two new balls and in English conditions - he has never opened in ODIs outside Asia - he is better off at No. 4.

England will go into the Champions Trophy better equipped for a global ODI tournament perhaps since 1992. England need to stick to their guns and retain faith in their methods and key players.

There were other encouraging signs for England. Steven Finn improved by the game and Joe Root and James Tredwell were especially impressive. The conditions of a June day in England - when the Champions Trophy is to be played - may not resemble those of India, but Tredwell showed the skill and composure to suggest, whatever the conditions, he would never let England down. Root, too, may have to be content with a role as understudy at present but, with each passing day, his future looks more and more promising. If you could buy shares in people, you would invest heavily in Root.

The one major disappointment from this series has been England's failure to identify the missing links in their ODI jigsaw. They went into this series all but certain about the identity of nine of their first choice ODI XI and ended it the same way. Perhaps discounting the claims of Craig Kieswetter and Jade Dernbach might be counted as progress, but England are little closer to finding their alternatives. If you accept that this series was about learning, England have to accept that some aspects of it have ended in failure.

The main issues to resolve remain the identity of the wicketkeeper and the identity of the fifth bowler. Hoping to squeeze 10 overs out of the likes of Samit Patel and Root will work sometimes but it is taking a huge risk. The pair conceded 80 runs between them in their 11 overs in the final ODI. England have been here before and it has cost them: in the 1979 World Cup final they attempted a similar ploy only to see the 12 overs delivered by Geoff Boycott, Graham Gooch and Wayne Larkins cost 86.

The ideal solution would be to field an allrounder of batting at No. 6 or No. 7 and delivering a full allocation of overs. None of the potential candidates - Tim Bresnan, Patel, Root, Luke Wright, Ben Stokes, Ravi Bopara, Chris Woakes or Rikki Clarke among them - are ideal at present, but knowing what you are missing is a decent first step towards finding it. Given some opportunity in the games remaining ahead of the Champions Trophy, each of them might learn their role. Woakes and Bresnan are in pole position.

The failure to take a look at Stuart Meaker might also be considered a missed opportunity from this series. It is hard to see the benefit of selecting Bresnan - impressive though he was - in the final game of this dead series. England learned nothing new about him. It might have made sense to look at some alternatives.

Minor quibbles aside, England will go into the Champions Trophy best equipped for a global ODI tournament since, perhaps, the 2004 version of the same event or even the 1992 World Cup. Whatever the vicissitudes of form, England need to stick to their guns and retain faith in their methods and key players. It is a long time since a global ODI trophy has been won by a side with a top three that owes more to the traditions of Boycott than Jayasuriya but that is the hand that England have been dealt and they play it well. If they keep playing it and identify the two missing positions, they will prove hard to beat.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo