James Lawton: Ashes triumph the shape of things to come for England
Of all the achievements England sought to underline with another slaughter of what used to be Australian cricket in Sydney late last night or early this morning there is no doubt about the greatest of them.
It is their embrace of competitive humility. It is the sweet acceptance that if you want to be the best in the world — which is an ambition reasonably provoked if not confirmed by their deeds Down Under in the last few weeks — you have to know the difference between hubris and bone-deep satisfaction.
You have to remember at all times that great sportsmen never lose sight of the fact that they are only as good as their last innings or round or race.
England did this at Perth after their evisceration of Australia in Adelaide in the second Test but what might have been a crisis, a lurch back into the old days, became something quite different.
It was, with plenty of time and nerve and a huge advantage in basic talent on their side, an opportunity to make the vital re-assessments which in the past have so often been ignored — and which four years ago led directly to one of the greatest humiliations in the history of English sport.
The 5-0 whitewash of 2006-2007 was quite different from what in some ways has been an equally profound series of revenge exacted by England.
Back then the disparity of talent was not so great; if Australia had the last of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne and Adam Gillespie, England still possessed Freddie Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen, the key figures of Ashes victory in 2005, and Paul Collingwood at his most combative.
The difference was that Australia played like men, defiantly and proudly, while England, right from the start in Brisbane, became parodies of the heroes who had their triumphal parade through the West End and the fall-about at Downing Street.
This time around there has been — apart from Pietersen's occasional lapse into old vanities — scarcely a breath of such immaturity.
Perth was not so much a wake-up call as a missile strike.
Some, who had plainly not been paying attention when England utterly dominated all aspects of the Tests in Brisbane and Adelaide, saw this as an explosion of a myth that the hosts had regressed terribly. It was nothing of the sort.
It was a setback clearly within the power of England, under the superbly balanced leadership of captain Andrew Strauss and coach Andy Flower, to make good, both by exploiting the intrinsic weakness of the Australian squad and re-exerting their much superior ability.
Yes, we know there has been a fault line. It appeared at the Wanderers ground in Johannesburg last January, briefly against the Pakistanis in the summer, and was present again at the Waca.
However, the response on this occasion has been massively convincing. The margins between the teams has become pitiful, from the career death agonies of the great Ricky Ponting, the uncertainties of batsman Michael Clarke and the fragility of Mitchell Johnson.
No putative cricketing superstar ever rivalled Johnson in commuting so regularly between heaven and hell.
In Brisbane to ask him a question felt like an unforgivable intrusion into private grief. Before the first Test he said he had never felt so confident.
His performance was so bad it would be cruel to dredge up the figures.
He travelled to Adelaide on the same plane as his team-mates and in the company of his girlfriend — and still managed to look the loneliest man in a vast and thinly populated country.
He didn’t appear in Adelaide, then re-emerged with dramatic effectiveness in Perth. In Melbourne and Sydney he has walked the line between triumph and disaster so persistently there have been times, surely, when the squeamish have been obliged to look away.
By comparison England's dressing room has been inhabited by men who have seemed entirely sure of themselves.
There was a time when taking decisions likes Paul Collingwood’s, to retire for the future well-being of the team, was an Australian standard.
But they grew negligent and the result is shown in the ruins of their game.
Maybe the likes of Usman Khawaja and Stevie Smith will raise the banner again some time soon, but don;t bet on it. Certainly not in the shadow of an England who have moved into a superior league.
This was, surely, a good enough reason to make a midnight toast — one that saluted not just magnificent performance but something quite as valuable. It was that understanding that if you want to be truly great the job is never done.