England youth project pays off
It was not just winning the second T20I against Pakistan in Dubai that would have delighted England, but that the architects of their victory were, in part, some of the younger players in whom so much hope and faith is stored.
England's 38-run victory squared the series at 1-1 with one game to play in Abu Dhabi on Monday. Perhaps just as importantly, in the long-term, Jonny Bairstow shrugged off a disappointing performance in the first match to provide the match-defining contribution here.
Maybe we should not have been surprised. Bairstow, 22, showed his qualities of timing and temperament when, on his international debut, he struck an unbeaten 41 from 21 balls to lead England to victory over India in Cardiff.
He has struggled since, however. He looked uncomfortable against spin in India and, in the first match of this series, failed to find the boundary in a 21-ball innings that seemed to expose those same frailties against high-quality slow bowlers.
He appears to be a quick learner. After struggling against Umar Gul on Thursday, Bairstow made sure he at least made contact with almost every delivery and waited for the slower ball, which he thrashed for six.
He has confidence, too. Shahid Afridi may have taken more wickets than any other bowler in T20 Internationals, but Bairstow was soon driving him over extra cover for four and picked the googly to dive a six back over the bowler's head.
Even against Saeed Ajmal he showed improvement. Ajmal made Bairstow appear a novice in the first game, but here he skipped down the pitch and drove a couple of high-quality boundaries. It was an impressive maiden international half-century from a young man with a big future.
Steven Finn, with three wickets, Jade Dernbach with three cheap overs, and Stuart Broad with a masterful bowling experience, also impressed amid England's younger contingent. Around such men will England build their future. They are strong foundations.
The scorecard will show that Jos Buttler again failed with the bat, but often the statistics do not tell the whole story. While Buttler certainly has some learning to do - there are those who know him well at Somerset who believe he will graduate into a high-class Test player, but give a time frame of around five years - he did take a tricky catch in the outfield that spoke volumes for his composure. Broad later said he would not discourage Buttler from playing the paddle shot that has twice brought about his downfall, instead suggesting the 21-year-old needed the support to express his talents freely at this level.
Compare that to the performance of Pakistan's younger players. Awais Zia, in particular, looked horribly out of his depth at this level as his 12 balls at the crease resulted in one scoring shot. The rest of the time he thrashed around like a drowning man. Two innings in international cricket is surely too early to judge a player but it seems fair to conclude that Zia is finding the learning curve from Pakistan domestic cricket to international cricket desperately steep. It is also worth noting that, at 25 years of age, Zia is the same age as England captain, Stuart Broad.
There was, at least, encouragement in the performance of Hammad Azam. The 20-year-old struck the ball delightfully cleanly but, coming in at 74 for six, was simply left with too much to do. He looked to be a talent worth perseverance.
"Bairstow showed character and experience beyond his years," his captain, Broad, said afterwards. "He realised it wasn't a 170 wicket and made sure we got a solid 150. You pick guys to play in pressure situations and you back them. I'm excited by our young players."
Typically, Bairstow advised the media not to "get carried away". "It's another step in the right direction," he said, while refuting that he did anything differently to the first match. Such a phlegmatic approach bodes well. There will, no doubt, be plenty of troughs amid the peaks in the years ahead but Bairstow appears to have the character to deal with them better than most.
It would be easy to dismiss Pakistan's T20 cricket on this performance, but it is worth remembering that they could yet win the series. Here, none of their top six could make a meaningful contribution, though an outstanding display with the ball and in the field from England was surely a relevant factor. The lack of young players coming through is a concern, however, and unusual for a nation that has, in the past, developed more than its fair share of precocious talent.
While Afridi sparkled briefly, Misbah-ul-Haq's innings was torturous. Graeme Swann, who enjoyed a fine game with the ball, teased him as a cat does a mouse; and we all know who wins those duels.
Misbah's 24-ball stay will, no doubt, provide fuel for those saying he is not a man for the shortest format. Amid the emotion, it may go unnoticed that this was Misbah's first T20I loss as captain in his seventh game at the helm. In the end his fate as limited-overs leader may well depend on how his side fare in the Asia Cup. If pride is dented, the pressure on him to go may become undeniable. His successor may consider himself well satisfied if his record is as good.
Edited by Alan Gardner
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo