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Hales development 'really pleasing' - Cook

He has kissed a few frogs in recent times, but perhaps, at last, Alastair Cook has found his prince.

Alex Hales was the eighth opening partner Cook has had since the retirement of Andrew Strauss and, although one or two flattered briefly, perhaps only Nick Compton in New Zealand in early 2013 has produced as consistent a series as Hales did against Sri Lanka.

It wasn't just the three scores in excess of 80. It was that Hales showed he had learned from his mistakes in South Africa. Gone were the tentative prods outside off stump; gone was the uncertainty over which balls to play and which to leave. He increased his average of 17.00 in South Africa by more than 40 in this series and showed, in the final innings at Lord's, that he had also learned from his mistakes in over-attacking against spin.

It would be premature to state that Hales has cemented his position, but he has earned the right to an extended trial covering the rest of the summer. And, if we mitigate against the failings of the Sri Lanka top order in the acceptance that batting in early season England is not easy, it seems only fair to praise Hales for succeeding in those same conditions.

It is true that tougher challenges await but he will face them now secure in the knowledge that his judgement around off stump is such that he can see off the new ball. He is learning that he has the time, in Test cricket, to withstand periods when the bowler is on top and gradually build an innings.

Under that amiable exterior there is impressive steel in Hales. It took a certain amount of courage and self-awareness to ask for an extra couple of County Championship games off after he returned from a winter with the England squads. Whereas other men on the fringe of the side might have felt the need to jump at the chance to be seen to do the right thing, Hales reasoned that he would benefit more from a refreshed mind than another couple of weeks of cricket.

So, having taken some time off, he returned to the nets at Trent Bridge to work - often with Peter Moores - on improving an off-stump technique that was exposed by South Africa. Crucially, he started to stand straighter at the crease, which brought his head back in line with his body and gave him more certainty about the position of his off stump. In South Africa he had crouched to such an extent that his head had started to fall several inches outside off stump and saw him defending balls that he could have left with ease.

And, while he had been billed as something of a dasher ahead of the South Africa series, he has also had the courage to play the game at his own pace. He is not, at first-class level, anything like the David Warner figure some had suggested. Instead, he had the strength to play as an accumulator. It may not be exactly what some aspects of the media wanted, but it gives him the best chance of succeeding at this level.

Hales' development was, in Cook's view, the major plus England could take from the series victory. While Nick Compton's Test career faded to a conclusion and James Vince made an uncertain start, Hales at least answered one of the questions facing England a few weeks ago: they know their opening pair for the series against Pakistan now.

"Three scores of 80 and above from Alex Hales was really pleasing," Cook said. "He's certainly tightened up his game from South Africa and probably just learned about Test cricket.

"It's great when you see someone who maybe doesn't quite nail it in the first four games but then goes away and shoes the hunger to work on his game away from the spotlight."

England have various options as they consider the No. 3 position for the Pakistan series. They could pick a specialist opener - Sam Robson would appear to be the strongest candidate at present - and move Hales to No.3, but that would appear an unusual response to his recent form. Or they could push Ben Stokes, one of the best players of pace in England, up to No. 3 on the basis that he tends to react well to responsibility.

Realistically, though, it seems Scott Borthwick will benefit from Gary Ballance or Ian Bell failing to amass enough runs to nudge the selectors and win a chance at No. 3. His legspin bowling will do him no harm in selection debates, either.

There is a danger that James Anderson's excellence in such conditions could be taken for granted, so it is worth remembering that he came into the series with one or two questions to answer over his long-term future. He endured a tough trip to South Africa, claiming seven wickets at 43.00 apiece, and was keen to prove that all the miles in his legs were not beginning to show.

He will rarely have conditions more in his favour than he did at Headingley, but he exploited them with surgical precision and showed in the second innings at Chester-le-Street that, even on slow, flat surfaces, he retains the skill and control to threaten. In finishing with the best bowling average of an England bowler with more than 20 wickets in a three-Test series since Derek Underwood in 1969, this was a reassuring return from Anderson.

Cook also celebrated the advances made by Chris Woakes in the last couple of Tests. Not only was he the quickest member of the attack, but he showed impressive control and demonstrated that his batting can be a force at Test level. He may not have done enough to force himself into England's first-choice side - Mark Wood and Stokes join Steven Finn in fighting for a similar position - but he did prove he deserved to be considered among the pack of seamers England will require to see them through their arduous schedule. He seems likely to play the first Test of the Pakistan series, at least, ahead of Stokes' return for the second or third match.

"Chris Woakes has really impressed me," Cook said. "He is a different cricketer to Ben Stokes, not as dynamic, but he is still very effective. I said before Durham we hadn't seen the best of Chris Woakes in an England shirt, but I thought he made really big strides in this series and proved to himself he can do it."

Jonny Bairstow was named Man of the Series for his exploits with the bat. He thumped two centuries that not only helped the side rebuild from top-order wobbles, but snatched the first and third Tests away from Sri Lanka within a couple of hours. So impressed was Cook with Bairstow that he compared him to "Matt Prior at his best".

"It's a brilliant achievement," Cook said. "And it's great to have an attacking batsman coming in and taking it to the opposition.He's been very similar to Matt Prior when he was at his best. We could often be 100 for five and he'd change the momentum. It's great to see someone who works so hard at his game getting his rewards."

Progress was not smooth, though. Cook admitted that England had found themselves three or four wickets down for few runs "more often than we would have liked" and he admitted that Bairstow's role as keeper remained a discussion point after seeing a couple of relatively straightforward chances go down.

"He knows how hard he has to work at his keeping," Cook said. "That is a conversation we do have. He knows a couple of chances have gone down, but you don't become a world-class wicketkeeper overnight. He's made big strides since that South Africa series and is certainly heading in the right direction. But yes, there is always the thought that he could play as a specialist batsman with a guy who scores as many runs as he can."

It might be forgotten amid the one-sided results in the first two games, but the last time Sri Lanka visited England they won the Test series.

For that reason alone, England have cause to celebrate this victory. Yes, conditions were stacked in their favour and, yes, this is a Sri Lanka side in a transitional phase. But England are not so strong, or so successful, that they can take anything for granted. It is only 13 months since they were held to a draw in the Caribbean. They remain the fourth-ranked team in the ICC's Test table.

But when you add the emergence of Hales, the development of Woakes and the dominance of Bairstow, they have made some tangible progress in this series. Progress is fitful and holes remain, but they are heading in the right direction.