What next for England?
What a difference a couple of hours make. On Monday evening England responded to the threat of imminent defeat in Durham by savaging Australia with eight wickets in 117 of the giddiest minutes seen on an English cricket field in a long time. The scoreboard said England but the soul said Pakistan. England played like cornered tigers.
It was more than just an Ashes-winning spell. The whole thing was so spectacular, visceral and compelling that it engendered a huge amount of goodwill for a team that has been the subject of a strange negativity in this series - some of it deserved, plenty not. Everything that has gone before in this series, from the Trent Bridge heartstopper to even the dreary stumble over the line at Old Trafford, will be seen through different eyes by virtue of what happened on Monday night.
England pride themselves on playing dispassionate, logical cricket, an unquestionably successful approach, yet every now and then they run with a mood and play such exhilarating cricket that you wonder whether they might be missing a trick. The performance in Durham evoked a couple from their peak in 2011 - Sri Lanka in Cardiff, another manic Monday in which they took nine wickets in the final session, and the brutal demolition of India at Trent Bridge, second only to The Oval 1994 on the list of devastating modern England performances.
England's world has changed since then. They have had to accept that they will not achieve the sustained greatness that seemed to be in their grasp two years ago, although very goodness is a decent second prize. There is a degree of sadness when we reflect on the naivety that surrounded England's ascent to world No. 1. They played so emphatically that it is understandable why good judges and bad assumed they would dominate world cricket for an extended period of time, even if the precedent of 2005 should probably have made everyone a little more cautious.
"The challenge now, of course, is to maintain our standards," began the last line of Graeme Swann's autobiography in 2011, "and I know of no reason why we shouldn't continue playing well enough to stay in pole position."
England were not just winning games in 2010 and 2011, they were destroying good teams from Pakistan, Australia, Sri Lanka and India. Their victory margins in those four series were 354 runs, nine wickets, an innings and 225 runs, an innings and 71 runs, an innings and 157 runs, an innings and 83 runs, an innings and 14 runs, 196 runs, 319 runs, an innings and 242 runs, an innings and 8 runs. That list of wins could easily have come from West Indies in the 1980s. It is almost impossible to overstate how good England were in that period.
As in 2005, they were brought to earth by Pakistan. The dramatic collapse in Multan eight years ago set England's first modern Ashes-winning side on a different path, as did the emphatic, almost humiliating 3-0 defeat against Pakistan at the start of 2012. It was a hideous reality check from which England have never truly recovered, even though they overcame their subcontinent demons later in the year with a famous victory in India.
Something died in the team in Pakistan: an innocence, and a conviction. Something was born also: a discomfort with being world No. 1.
"This is going to sound a little daft, and I hope it is taken in the right way, but it was almost a relief to lose the mace," says Matt Prior in his autobiography, The Gloves Are Off. "We had dealt so badly with being number one that it was as if a huge burden was now being lifted from our shoulders. We could go back to hunting again."
They are still an outstanding team - arguably England's best since the 1950s - and it feels harsh to nitpick in the aftermath of such a stirring victory, yet equally there is a mature discussion to be had about where this England team are heading and what comes next for them.
What is not in doubt is that South Africa are now in a different post code to England. Small moments such as that Swann run-out set teams on different paths. A year on, South Africa deservedly strut around with the conviction of a team who are the world's best, and who have sustained greatness in their grasp. England have recovered admirably after a horrible period in 2012, winning in India and going 12 Tests unbeaten, but they are still nowhere near the level of performance they managed in 2010-11.
England's decline has largely been in their batting - not just the volume of runs but, crucially, the speed at which they score them. Strike rate is a decent window into the soul of a team. In 2011, England averaged 59.16 runs per wicket and scored at 3.81 runs per over. In 2012 those figures dropped to 32.52 and 3.00; in 2013 they are 32.87 and 2.84 - a startling drop of one run per over. Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman have a lot to answer for. The bowling has generally been on a more even keel, apart from a notable drop in runs conceded per over in 2012.
England have been punished for their own excellence in many ways - they became the hunted rather than the hunter, they are the subject of stratospheric expectations, and they have an ever-decreasing list of goals, something with which this team seem abnormally fixated.
"There's no way our goal will be just trying to maintain that status," said Andy Flower when they became world No. 1. "We've got to have something more exciting than that. England has never won a 50-over World Cup, so 2015 is something we've already started planning towards." It is also a recurring theme of Prior's autobiography. "Making records has always been a massive turn-on for this team," he says. "Our goal has always been to create history."
They have certainly done that, regaining the Ashes, winning in Australia for the first time since 1986-87, becoming world No. 1, winning in India for the first time since 1984-85. That victory in India completed a full set of away series wins in the 21st century (except Zimbabwe, where England have not played). There are no major historical goals left to achieve.
Perhaps their unbeaten run will take on a life of its own. Regaining the mace seems unlikely in the medium term - even if England win the back-to-back Ashes 9-0, they will still not do so - and they are almost in limbo between South Africa and the rest of the world. (The Test rankings say they are third behind India, but having beaten them 6-1 home and away it is understandable why many regard England as superior.)
It sounds anathema, but for the next 18 months England's principal focus could be one-day cricket. The World Cup is an obvious goal, and once the return Ashes series is done their focus is very much on the shorter forms of the game. From January 8, 2014 to the end of the World Cup in March 2013, England are scheduled to play ten Tests, a minimum of 34 ODIs and a minimum of 12 T20s. In other words 18% of their matches will be Tests. Contrast that with the period from November 2012 to January 2014: 18 Tests, 21 ODIs, nine T20s: 38% of their matches being Tests.
Sustained excellence should theoretically be sufficient motivation for a team of high-class sportsmen, yet the English psyche is such, that seems to be more of a problem than it is for, say, a German football team or an Australian cricket team. England's next six Test series are Australia (A), Sri Lanka (H), India (H), West Indies (A), New Zealand (H) and Australia (H). It is not quite a case of been-there-done-that, and winning a fourth and maybe fifth consecutive Ashes series has an ever-so-slight appeal, yet even that does not quite carry the excitement of Australia away in 2010-11 or India at home the following summer.
England have to wait until the winter of 2015-16 for the mouthwatering double of Pakistan and South Africa away, with significant points to prove in both. Yet by that time Graeme Swann will be 36, Kevin Pietersen 35, Jonathan Trott 34 and Jimmy Anderson, Matt Prior and Ian Bell 33. The team may have a different identity. Human nature and Englishness being what they are, perhaps only when a new team is formed will the current team truly get the credit they deserve.
Rob Smyth is the author of The Spirit of Cricket - What Makes Cricket the Greatest Game on Earth