Duncan Fletcher returned home with his victorious England squad yesterday convinced their outstanding triumph in Pakistan will give them the self-belief to challenge the world's best sides in the year ahead.

Coach Fletcher capped a successful 12 months by guiding England to a 1-0 series victory in Pakistan after a thrilling triumph in the final Test at Karachi to clinch their first overseas win since beating New Zealand 2-0 in 1997.

Under his guidance and the captaincy of Nasser Hussain, they have developed into a side difficult to beat.

They haveg lost just two of their last 14 Tests and have now discovered the knack of winning close contests by edging out West Indies at Lord's and Pakistan at the National Stadium.

But the real challenge lies ahead with the visit to Sri Lanka in January, when they will face the task of tackling the brilliance of Muttiah Muralitharan followed by the visit of Australia later for a five-Test Ashes series.

They will begin both series as underdogs, but Fletcher believes the confidence and belief gained from their victory can provide the impetus to even greater progress.

''People expected us to beat West Indies, although they thought we might have a hiccup. But to go out to Pakistan and win away was a real achievement and signifies that there's a change and improvement in English cricket," he said.

''We now have a belief that we can really compete with the best sides around. Pakistan are a very good team, playing in conditions which suited their game and their world-class spinners - and we have done very well.

''Ashley Giles has shown that we can bowl spin, and our batsmen have shown we can play spin. We now have a well-balanced side capable of competing.''

The crucial factor in their success over the last two months has been their ability to learn, not only adjusting their technique to cope with the unique demands of playing spin on the sub-continent but also developing a resolve and determination which has stopped them buckling under the great pressure Pakistan have tried to exert.

Important contributions by Ian Salisbury, Giles and Darren Gough adding runs down the order have also added an extra dimension to England's game, while the emergence of Craig White as a top-quality international all-rounder has finally enabled them to field a balanced line-up.

''Salisbury may have lacked in his bowling. But he came to the fore with his batting, and that's what it's all about - if you can't perform with one then perform with the other,'' added Fletcher.

''That is what has been really important on this tour because we have got some all-rounders in there now that have given us that much more depth to our side.''

It is a theme echoed by buoyant captain Hussain, who revealed: ''What we have tried to instil is a bit of character and fight in this side because the major thing is to stay in the game.

''Far too often we have not done that. When we're 150 all out we were always playing catch-up. Then there is no pressure on the opposition.''

But perhaps the biggest factor in England's revival has been the way Fletcher has encouraged the whole squad to make a greater contribution to the decision-making process.

From the very outset of his reign he set up a management committee comprising senior and young players and is regularly seen seeking out players' opinions during practice.

''I've tried to give the players responsibility,'' he said.

''I genuinely believe that if you give human beings responsibility they will respond, and that is what it's really been about.

''I speak to a lot of the players about tactics and what they think we should be doing next, so they feel part of the team.

''I make sure I go and speak to everyone and ask them what to do each day. By doing that people pull towards the goal that you set.''

"If we're going to compete with the two top sides there are areas we have to look at, but as long as the graph shows we are going up and heading in the right direction that's the most important thing.''