After the euphoria of regaining the Ashes from Australia, England woke up to the sobering fact that both teams are now behind South Africa, Sri Lanka and India in cricket's world rankings.
While the 2-1 triumph over its oldest and most feared foe had all the thrills, twists and turns of a classic Ashes series, even the jubilant England followers face the reality that neither side played consistently well and would probably have been beaten soundly by new No. 1 South Africa on current form.
The English are likely to find that out when they fly out there in November to play four tests while the Australians, the top ranked team for six years, are now down at No. 4 and will eventually go home to a possibly hostile reception from media, fans and former players.
That means England captain Andrew Strauss can't let the celebrations last long and Ricky Ponting has to take a long hard look at the future of the Australian team and his own position. Heading into test cricket retirement because of a persistent knee injury that requires immediate surgery, England allrounder Andrew Flintoff said on Monday his teammates showed that they had the ability to make it to the top of the rankings, especially having beaten Australia in 2005 and 2009.
"There's no reason why we can't be the best in the world. We're a very talented team," he said. "If there's any lesson to learn from 2005 now, it's to go for domination, to try to get number one in the world.
"We've got the talent, we've got the side to do it. It's just a case of believing it and putting it into practice." England coach Andy Flower sounded far more cautious. "I'm very proud of our guys, they did a brilliant job over the series and came back from a tough position on a number of occasions," the former Zimbabwe batsman and wicketkeeper said. "But we have got a long way to go as a side, we are still number five in the world and we've got a long way to go to be where we want to be. I've heard that phrase 'dominating the world'. I think that's getting a bit ahead of ourselves. We've got to get to number four first."
The positives for England are that Strauss and his players beat the Australians largely without their top batsman, Kevin Pietersen, who missed the last three tests through injury, while Flintoff was nowhere near fully fit throughout the series. A bonus was the arrival of Jonathan Trott, a South African-born batsman who scored a century on his debut in the final test at The Oval. The down side was a batting crisis after the heavy fourth test defeat that sparked talk of recalling Marcus Trescothick out of test cricket retirement or 39-year-old Mark Ramprakash who hadn't played for England for seven years.
Even with Pietersen fit and Trott emerging, England would still not match the batting strength of South Africa, Sri Lanka or India while its bowlers, though brilliant in spells, lacked consistency. Australia has just as many problems, one of which is whether Ponting remains the right man to lead the side.
Although the retirements of the likes of Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne weakened a once great side, some of the critics back home suggested the selectors had sent a poor squad of players to England.
They also said it was a big mistake dropping spinner Nathan Hauritz for the deciding fifth test at The Oval where England's Graeme Swann took eight wickets on a very helpful pitch. The loss left Ponting with a record as captain of 39 victories, 11 losses and 11 draws and there were calls that he should be replaced as leader so that he can maintain his high standards as a batsman when the team hosts Pakistan in a three-test series starting in December.
Former Australia captain Ian Chappell believed that would be too hasty.
"Obviously with Australia losing the series and Ponting losing the Ashes in England for the second time, there will be some queries about his captaincy, there will be some sniping about his captaincy," Chappell said.
"Overall I thought he did a pretty fair job as a captain. And when you consider the turnover of very good players that he has had under his captaincy. And I think he has done remarkably well to keep Australia afloat in a situation where they are still a team in transition."