Cook's class exposes Pakistan
This game could have been a tale of two captains. While Alastair Cook and Misbah-ul-Haq both batted impressively, only one of them enjoyed much support from his team and was, as a consequence, able to progress to provide the match-defining innings.
Cook, once again, batted beautifully. Calm, assured and classy, he became the first England captain to record centuries in successive ODIs and only the ninth England players to do so. More importantly, he earned his England side an unassailable 2-0 lead in the four-match series.
Misbah might have been able to thwart Cook. With 67 deliveries remaining, his side required only 72 more runs and had six wickets in hand. Instead, Pakistan's captain could do little but look on as England's seamers picked off his team-mates. While Cook was supported by an excellent display in the field and some sensible support with the bat, Misbah had to content with a wicketkeeper who resembles a colander and a lower-order as brittle as a crisp.
So, how much does this result represent an improvement in the form of the England team, or how much is it simply the result of the outstanding form of its captain?
The answer is a bit of both. Cook has not been the only England player to enjoy a good series to date: Steven Finn has bowled with pace, hostility and skill to claim four wickets in each match, while Ravi Bopara, for the second game in succession, showed he has developed the substance to go with his style in contributing an important half-century.
There were other promising signs for England. Kevin Pietersen looked in better form, though the familiar manner of dismissal was a worry, while Samit Patel bowled with intelligence and control. He fielded well, too, while James Anderson and Graeme Swann also enjoyed good games with the ball. Those are highly encouraging signs. But take Cook - playing the best limited-overs cricket of his life at present - out of the equation and the margins between these teams is minimal.
One area in which England have a clear edge is fielding. In a game decided by a margin of 20 runs, it may well have been the key factor. Indeed, had Umar Akmal held on to a simple chance offered by Cook when he had 28, Pakistan might have won. Later Mohammed Hafeez admitted Pakistan were "not the best fielding side in the world" but that they had "tried their level best." He also inadvertently offered the faintest of praise for Akmal's keeping by stating "he's done it before." At international level, that should be a prerequisite.
Perhaps England also benefited from some fortune. Craig Kieswetter and Stuart Broad both dropped chances, but Pakistan were unable to take advantage, while Cook admitted that winning the toss was "advantageous". Still, England won the toss at times in India and were unable to take advantage. They are showing signs of progress.
Pakistan have a serious issue with the balance of their side. The fragility of their batting has seen Akmal pressed into service as a wicketkeeper and, as things stand, he simply is not up to the job. Here it was his reprieve of Cook that cost his side. In the previous game it was his missed stumping of Bopara. Pakistan cannot afford such profligacy. It is hard to think of a poorer keeper in the international game.
The problem is compounded by the frailty of the Pakistan tail. Abdur Rehman - who wasted 12 balls in scoring just 1 - looks a couple of places too high at No. 8, while his fellow bowlers are all No. 11s. Azhar Ali, playing his second ODI, may well develop into a fine player in this format, but at present there is too much required of Misbah.
Misbah's record as part of a chasing side is little less than extraordinary. In games where Pakistan have won batting second, Misbah averages 85. Here, with just a little support, he might have seen his side to victory, but his partners left him with too much to do. Even Shahid Afridi, for all his appeal, has become so hit and miss with the bat, that he has passed fifty only once in his last 28 ODI innings. Indeed, he has passed fifty only 38 times in his 336 game ODI career. Which means he has not passed fifty in 298 games.
In their last 27 ODIs, Pakistan have registered a score of 250 or more just three times. While that statistic is slightly misleading - Pakistan have won many of those games batting second - it does confirm one suspicion: the strength of Pakistan is in their bowling attack. But until they can find another all-rounder or two, the balance of the side will remain an issue. Hammad Azam is one option if the selectors decide to embrace youth; Mohammad Sami another if they opt for experience.
In that context, Cook's century was all the more impressive. For it was not just the runs Cook scored that mattered, but that he soon calculated what a good score was on this surface and ensured England reached that target. Such precise judgement is not easy to acquire. It was telling that his 118-ball century contained 59 dot balls. In some circumstances that would suggest an inability to manoeuvre the ball but here, on a slow pitch, it demonstrated a cool head and an impressive ability to read the game. Indeed, it represented good leadership. Cook is growing into the role of captain and opening batsman by the day. He has proved many doubters wrong.
"From about 25 overs into our innings, I thought that 250 was a good score," Cook said. "Maybe we should have scored 260-265 from the position we were in, but in the past England teams might have tried to score 280 and been bowled out for 220. If it had turned out that 250 was not a good score, it would have been my fault."
Cook credited the improvement in his ODI form to a period in the county game. "When I was out of the England ODI side, I knew that if wanted to play one-day cricket for England I had to improve," he said. "I had to score quicker. That's what I went to work on with Graham Gooch and the Essex boys. The experience I gained playing those two years for Essex - especially a year-and-a-half playing T20 cricket for Essex - forced me to expand my game and helped me realise what I could do. I'd love to be in the T20 side, too, but it's a totally different format and I'm not in it at the moment." In form like this, however, it is quite possible Cook could be added to the squad.
There was, at least, an encouraging sight off the field from a Pakistan perspective. The Pakistan and Indian ambassadors to the UAE watched the game together and, it is understood, talked in broad terms about the possibility of a series between the sides, quite possibly in the UAE and with an aspirational date of 2013. Both ambassadors will now report back to their respective governments before more formal talks take place.