Captain Cook defies doubters
Alastair Cook could be forgiven for wearing a smug expression after England's ODI victory over Pakistan in Abu Dhabi. Not only did it end a grim winless streak - England had lost nine of their last ten international games and their last five ODIs - but he had proved a point to his army of critics.
Cook is not a universally popular choice as England's ODI captain. Some have criticised his somewhat one-paced batting; others his lack of feel for captaincy. In short, a host of former players - the likes of Sir Ian Botham, David Lloyd, Dermot Reeve and Mike Atherton - either questioned his place in the side or his position as captain.
The point the critics missed was this: since he was made England's ODI captain, Cook's batting has improved immensely. Before he was appointed permanently, Cook averaged 33 in ODIs and had a strike-rate of 71.38. Since returning, however, he has averaged 52.64 at a strike-rate of 93.76. After being dropped - having led England in Strauss's absence on the tour of Bangladesh in early 2010 - Cook returned to Essex, worked with Graham Gooch on expanding his array of strokes and has emerged a new man. He is a much improved limited-overs cricketer and now only Gooch, of England batsman, has a higher ODI score against Pakistan.
The jury is still out on Cook's long-term suitability for this format or this role. But, bearing in mind how poor the England side were when he was appointed captain, then progress was always going to take time. This was his third ODI century, his second since becoming captain and, as he suggested, it may have been his best.
"I probably batted more fluently in that game against Sri Lanka [it was actually India, in Southampton], when I got 80 off 60 balls," he said. "But as a whole innings, in the context of the game, I'm really happy with the way I played.
"We all know the fickle world of cricket. In the summer when things were going really well, everyone was on our side. Then we had a bad tour ... but as I've always said, as captain, you're judged by results - and we didn't play very well. I take responsibility.
"But today was a really good day for the side. It was good to play to our potential, which I don't think we had done so far on this tour. We did need this win and it was great to be able to contribute to it."
Here he was obliged to carry his team. While Kevin Pietersen, confidence seemingly ebbing away by the day, squandered the Powerplay overs by patting back Mohammad Hafeez's offspin as if each delivery might spit like a cobra, Cook timed the ball with surprising ease. He found the gaps, swept hard, manoeuvred the ball off his legs expertly and, when the opportunity arose, drove nicely. His contributions are routinely dismissed as workmanlike and worthy but, on an evening where only one other man could reach 30, this was a high-class innings.
Afterwards he reflected on his improved ODI form, reasoning that his original selection may have come too early. A stint in the county game had also proved beneficial.
"When I first played ODIs, I hadn't played that much for Essex," Cook said. "In the two-and-a-half years I was out of the side, I just became more experienced. I went back to Essex, played a lot more one-day cricket, played T20 cricket and was able to work on my game away from the international stage.
But one sand dune does not make a desert. England still lost all seven wickets to spin bowling with Saeed Ajmal again cutting through the middle-order. This suggests England's troubles are not over and their long-term record in both ODI cricket and in Asia remains poor. Excluding Bangladesh, England have now won just once against an Asian team in Asia since 2007. This, however, might have been a step on the long journey towards improvement.
The performances of Ravi Bopara, Steve Finn and, to a lesser extent, Samit Patel, who played a selfless innings and with the ball reaped the rewards of Finn's excellence, were also encouraging. Coming to the crease on a hat-trick, Bopara enjoyed some fortune early in his innings, before demonstrating his sweet timing and improved temperament. It was an important performance from a man who might well, had Jos Buttler been fit, have missed out on selection once again.
"That was a really big knock for Ravi," Cook said afterwards. "The way he handled the pressure was a real key moment. If we'd lost another couple of wickets it would have been 'here we go again'. I hope he can build on that and play some really important innings for us - because we know how talented he is."
Finn, meanwhile, exceeded 90mph with the ball but, more impressively, maintained a perfect length. His four-wicket opening burst as good as decided this game and underlined the impression that, aged 22, he has an exciting future. It is a strong Test attack that cannot find room for a bowler of Finn's ability.
England's poor batting in the recently concluded Test series hid one very significant factor: Pakistan did not always bat very well either. Here, faced with Finn's extra pace and lacking Azhar Ali's resilience, they buckled with surprising ease. England bowled well, but the fact that no Pakistan batsman scored more than 28 tells its own story. They lacked composure under pressure and adequate techniques to cope with Finn's hostility and probing line and length.
It was not the only disappointing aspect of their cricket. Their fielding was also lacklustre, while their seamers' 15 overs cost 100 runs. It is their first loss in eight games, however, so judgement should surely be reserved. In Ajmal - who claimed the first five-wicket haul of his ODI career - and Shahid Afridi they have two champion bowlers who could yet decide this series.
Afterwards Younis Khan was gracious in defeat. "England played much better than Pakistan," he said. "Steven Finn looked very much improved. He is a fantastic bowler and really surprised me with his aggression. His body language and the way he banged it in were very good. The way they bowled the first ten overs outclassed us.
"Cook played a wonderful knock and he was very positive right from the start. It was a very nice innings to watch and if a captain does well then the team is lifted. And it was a very good performance from Bopara, too. I said during the Dubai Test that England are a very good side and they could bounce back. Well, they have."
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo