Pakistan v England, 3rd ODI, Dubai February 19, 2012

Squad could go on to better things

While this series win does not make England immediate favourites for the next World Cup, it does show that England are progressing into a highly skilled ODI team

Short of stumbling upon hidden treasure or a formula for ever-lasting life, it is hard to conceive of a way that the third ODI could have gone much better from an England perspective.

It was not just that England won. It was that they confirmed their dominance over Pakistan by wrapping up the four-match series with a game to play; their captain underlined his newly acquired status as a fine ODI cricketer; their young fast bowler again demonstrated his class; and their star player returned to form following a lean period. England's cup was overflowing with encouragement.

This win does not mean England should suddenly be considered favourites for the next World Cup or that all their problems are resolved. But, after the 5-0 whitewash they suffered in India before Christmas, it does suggest progress.

On the surface, it would seem to mark an abrupt turn of fortunes for both these sides. There were concerns after their 3-0 drubbing in the Test series, that an England team struggling for form and confidence might be thrashed in the ODI series. Instead, led from the front by their captain, they achieved only their second series victory in Asia since 1987 (in series excluding Bangladesh and involving just two nations) and their first away series win (again, excluding Bangladesh) since defeating South Africa at the end of 2009. While England's record in home conditions was good, their record outside the UK was modest.

But perhaps we should not be too surprised. Since Alastair Cook was appointed captain, England have won series against India and Sri Lanka at home and only been beaten by India away. When Cook was appointed England's ODI captain, he accepted that it would take time to change the fortunes of a side that had recently suffered early elimination in the World Cup and warned that there were be "some hiccups on the way". The series in India was certainly a hiccup but, four major series into Cook's leadership, it is possible to trace improvement.

England may well have developed the nucleus of a squad that could go on to bigger and better things. The likes of Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes could be pushing for inclusion in a battling line-up that has performed well here, while the likes of Tim Bresnan will be pushing for inclusion in a bowling line-up that has performed very impressively. That represents a strong squad.

But the greatest success has been the form of the captain. Cook has not just ground out runs as is routinely described. He has timed the ball beautifully, hit the ball with power and scored at a rate of 88.36. He looked every inch a top ODI opener and has surely ended, once and for all, the debate over his position in the side. Had he scored just 20 more runs, he would have become just the fifth man - and the first England player - to register three successive ODI centuries.

Their fielding has been pedestrian, their spinners quiet, the seamers disappointing and the batsmen underperforming
Dobell on Pakistan

Steven Finn, too, has established himself as a fine international bowler. For the third game in succession, he bowled with pace, skill and control and has built on the progress he showed in India. It is increasingly hard to see how England will be able to omit him from any team in any format before long.

And then there is Kevin Pietersen. This was Pietersen's eighth ODI hundred but his first since 2008. He was magnificent in this innings: confident; powerful; brave. It was a reminder of the wonderful player that helped England win the only global trophy they have yet lifted - the World T20 of 2010 - and of the player that was once rated the finest ODI player in the world. One innings - however good - does not prove he is back to his best but proves he is capable of such heights. Aged 32, there is no reason why Pietersen's best should not be in front of him.

"I said I didn't feel as if I was out of form," Pietersen said afterwards. "I didn't know it had been three-and-a-half-years since my last century - that's a long time ago - but I felt very calm. I didn't feel I had a point to prove to anyone. I understand that, if I don't score runs, I'll be criticised and that is fine. I'm very thick skinned.

"ODI hundreds are very hard to get, so when you get them you enjoy them. But to win for England means more to me. This ranks right up there with the best ODI series wins I've experienced. Pakistan are a fantastic team and, after being hammered in India, this is a good place to be."

Cook, meanwhile, praised the spirit of his England team. "We showed character to turn things around," he said, referring to the 3-0 loss in the Test series. "When you lose three in a row, you have every right to be down on yourself but we fronted up. It doesn't mean we've learned all the lessons from India, but it does mean we might be making some progress."

Such a victory requires context. Pakistan were strangely off-colour in this series. That a team that could be so impressive in the Test series could look so anaemic in the ODI series is hard to understand. Their fielding has been at best pedestrian and at worst ragged and their batting has been fragile. While their spinners remained quiet, the seamers disappointed. With the batsmen underperforming, it has proved impossible to balance the side.

In the first two games, at least, there were mitigating factors. They had lost the toss and were obliged to bat under lights. Here, batting first, they were simply outplayed. They were bowled out in all three of these games and have reached 250 only three times in their last 28 ODIs. The England attack is good, certainly, but Pakistan's batting clearly needs strengthening.

"Confidence is a big thing for players," Misbah-ul-Haq said. "You can see by the way they are playing that the England batsmen, as they are getting used to our bowlers and the conditions, are playing with more confidence. All credit to them."

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo