"This was an eye-opener and a wake-up call and with two more tours on the subcontinent coming up, things won't get easier. We have to be up for this challenge."
Andrew Strauss, February 6, 2012

"I hate the words 'you'll learn from it' but you do, especially in conditions such as these because we go back to India and Bangladesh next winter. We'll see then whether we have learned."
Alastair Cook, November 5, 2015

Those two comments, by two England captains, nearly four years apart sum up the never-ending battle of competing in Asia. Strauss was speaking after the 3-0 whitewash on the previous tour to the UAE, Cook earlier on Thursday after England fell to a 2-0 series loss with a 127-run defeat in Sharjah.

The final outcome in 2015 is harsh on England. On the previous tour they were so dumbfounded by the spin that that 3-0 was a perfectly fair reflection. This time, there was not quite the difference between the teams that 2-0 would suggest.

In 2012 there was a feeling of a team, crowned as world No. 1 and perhaps believing their own hype a little too much, that had not fully appreciated the task against Pakistan. This time the overriding sense is of a side still in a development process (patience has been a buzzword but not without reason) that dug deep into its resolve. They almost stole Abu Dhabi in the gloom but, from the moment Pakistan escaped, while clinging to their coat-tails England never pulled away from them.

They had a chance in Sharjah, dismissing Pakistan for 234 and then reaching 228 for 4 in reply. But with Ben Stokes injured, no one able to convert into three figures and a profligate spin attack which undid the tireless work of James Anderson and Stuart Broad they did not have enough daylight.

England's Test year now reads: Played 13, Won 5, Lost 6, Drawn 2. So there is more in the wrong column that the right one. There is one Test remaining for them in 2015, a daunting prospect against South Africa on Boxing Day in Durban, and while their year will always be defined by those contests at Cardiff, Edgbaston and Trent Bridge which regained the Ashes it cannot blithely be called a successful one overall.

A feature of the Ashes earlier this year was how, before that heady first morning at Trent Bridge which sealed the series, they seized key moments when Australia could have fought back. In Cardiff there was Moeen Ali's second-morning counter-attack with 77 followed by the third-morning new-ball bowling to secure a significant lead then at Edgbaston, with England only 54 ahead, Moeen and Broad added a rollicking 87 for the eighth wicket. They could not quite conjure those moments in the UAE.

However, winning this series was always expected to be a step too far for this side. Progress has been made, not least because this was the first Asian Test experience for six of the players used, although quite how much is open to debate. Cook said earlier in the year that he wanted to end talk of showing fight and desire - they are elements that should be present in top-flight sport regardless - and instead wanted the side to express their skills. Clearly this has been a far better performance than 2012, but how do various elements stack up?

In 2012, England made just five half-centuries in the series, this time it is nine plus Cook's 263 in Abu Dhabi. That's not enough hundreds, but Cook's 450 runs is miles ahead of anything managed last time, when Jonathan Trott's meagre 161 runs topped the charts. Joe Root also contributed 287, although tellingly the next best was 158 runs by Ian Bell. But it took until the final day of the series - the 15th day of tough cricket - for a batting meltdown close to 2012. In Abu Dhabi they piled up 598 for 9, in Dubai batted 137.3 overs in the second innings and in Sharjah secured a 72-run lead.

Last time here, three players - Bell, Kevin Pietersen and Eoin Morgan - all averaged under 15. Now, James Taylor, Jonny Bairstow, Adil Rashid and to a lesser extent Stokes (his injury knocked his numbers further) have spent considerable time in the middle rather than being walking wickets. Misbah-ul-Haq acknowledged that nothing has come easily for Pakistan, which could not be said about 2012 or even Australia's visit here last year.

The pace bowlers have been outstanding again - Anderson has rarely bowled better - while the issues with spin are well-document and not easily rectified. Another area where the 2012 side was better off was having Matt Prior as a world-class wicketkeeper-batsman. The current side is in flux with Bairstow having taken the gloves from Jos Buttler.

England did learn quickly after the 2012 tour, securing a drawn series in Sri Lanka a few months later and a famous victory in India the following year - that in Cook's first series as full-time Test captain - but two fundamental elements of competing on the subcontinent are scoring hundreds and spin bowling.

Fixing the latter is a long-term task and next winter in India and Bangladesh could still be too soon for radical improvement. England's next three Tests assignments, away in South Africa then a home summer against Sri Lanka and Pakistan, may not expose that discipline as harshly as has been the case on this tour, but a lack of top-order centuries will hamper them wherever and whoever they are playing.

Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo