Captain Cook enjoys the learning curve
The one thing Alastair Cook would probably like to do more than anything in Sharjah is the one thing most out of his control: win the toss. Certainly, the England bowlers reckon it is about time he called correctly.
Perhaps it is just cricket karma for winning the toss at Trent Bridge during the Ashes. But, once the luck of the coin is disregarded, Cook has not made many dud moves as captain since he started to emerge from his shell after relinquishing the one-day job and being allowed to purely focus on Test cricket.
The runs have started to flow again - 1245 and counting in 2015, putting him in a race with Joe Root (1278) to challenge Michael Vaughan's England calendar record of 1481 with two Tests to go this year - while he has overseen the Ashes being regained and continued to mould an evolving side in the UAE. Although he could not convert his 65 in the first innings in Dubai he could fairly have expected better from his middle order.
There remains a risk of 2-0 being the final scoreline in this series, which would not look great on Cook's CV, but it would still be an improvement on what Andrew Strauss' team - a more mature side which had gone to No.1 in the world - achieved in 2012 when they were whitewashed 3-0.
The end of the Sharjah Test will also mark two full series in which Cook has worked with Trevor Bayliss, after the Australian began as England coach just two weeks before the Ashes. There was a quick bonding camp in Spain before the tussle began in Cardiff and then, with barely time to blink, it finished at The Oval with Cook holding the urn aloft.
Although still in its infancy, Cook is forging a strong relationship with Bayliss - someone he did not know before he became coach - and is enjoying the detached way Bayliss operates, giving him almost complete control of the team unlike previous regimes. Cook came into the captaincy under Andy Flower, did the one-day job under Ashley Giles and then worked alongside Peter Moores, someone Cook has credited with a lot of the development of the young players but has twice been axed only to see the team's fortunes then improve.
"I've enjoyed working with every coach, Trevor has been different in terms of not knowing him before he became coach," Cook said. "He's a really relaxed guy, lets the captain run the side, that's probably one of the big differences from the other guys and it allows me to take more responsibility for the leadership than with previous coaches. I think it probably came at the right time for me with my captaincy experience and I've enjoyed it."
There have been subtle signs in the shift of Cook's captaincy. Although he battled back from the one the lowest points of his career against India in 2014, when he considered his position after being 1-0 down before marshalling a 3-1 victory, the switch was really flicked against New Zealand at Lord's earlier this year when, with Bayliss' appointment confirmed but Paul Farbrace in temporary charge, England responded to adversity with a thrilling display to secure victory. Cook anchored the second innings with a nine-hour 162 while the carefree Ben Stokes registered the fastest hundred at the ground.
Although defeat followed at Headingley, Cook was committed to following through the positive approach instilled by Farbrace and latterly Bayliss in the Ashes. Little moments, such as declaring nine down on the second morning a Trent Bridge to give Australia 10 minutes before lunch, and keeping his slip cordon stacked for longer than he previously would may sound obvious things to have done but they were signs of his learning.
Chief among Cook's critics was Shane Warne and although their differences were patched up 18 months ago by a phone call between the pair, they came almost full circle in Sharjah this week when Warne had a session with Adil Rashid and also spent time chatting with Cook, who has been challenged to think differently with a legspinner under his charge.
"He was still fairly critical in the summer as well, as Michael Clarke's best mate he was always going to do that," Cook said with a wry smile, suggesting the England-Australia divide will never completely disappear. "Me and Shane Warne's so-called spat, what I said was taken a little bit out of context - it was probably directed to the whole media, not just him, and people jumped on that.
"We had a phone call for an hour, hour-and-a-half and have stayed in contact ever since. We have a better relationship than before the phone call. I don't know Shane that well, but it was great of him to come down and spend some time with Rash. Me listening to what he was telling Rash was fantastic and we are very grateful to him."
Earlier in his captaincy career, Cook would admit he did not know it all although doubts persisted as to whether his stubborness - one of his great qualities - worked against him. "I've learnt, no doubt," he said. "The more you do the job the better you get at it. You can better cope with everything that goes with it."
No amount of learning, though, will help the coin fall his way on Sunday morning.
Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo