The England selectors announced yesterday that they were bringing forward their tour party announcement from 12.30pm today to 12.15. They ought to be going the other way. Not, as last week, because they haven't a clue what to do, but because the cricket public - never wider than at moments like this - needs time to savour the aftertaste of a delicious Test series.
It's not just a matter of enjoying the euphoria. There was more to The Oval 2003 than a fabulous fightback. Some famous victories have had no significance and little afterglow: after winning in style at The Oval in 1993, 1994 and 1997, England went off and resumed their losing ways. Time will tell, but this win feels more meaningful, for several reasons.
Firstly, it shows that scoring 450 is no longer a guarantee of safety. South Africa made 484 and lost, and, as it happened, they could have made 500 and still not been safe. This bar has been raised by the worldwide trend towards faster scoring. It is hard to say what total does act as insurance in the 21st century: 525, perhaps, or 550 if facing Australia.
Secondly, it means that England can beat a better team on a flat pitch. They managed it here through a near-perfect combination of individual excellence and teamwork. Four men surpassed themselves: Marcus Trescothick had the match of his life, Andrew Flintoff the innings, and Martin Bicknell and Steve Harmison the spells.
Graham Thorpe, with more to surpass, was not far off his best. But look at what the "also-rans" contributed. Mark Butcher added glue to the first innings and polish to the second, and fielded much better once he was released from the slips by the return of Thorpe. James Anderson bowled one fine spell, late on Thursday, to set the great turnaround in motion. Ashley Giles made up for a lack of turn with clever changes of pace, and produced an inspired flick to run out Jacques Kallis. Ed Smith, not one of nature's short legs, took a great diving catch.
Alec Stewart held his chances, yelled "Geddit!" several hundred times, added 100 runs with Trescothick, and kept the crowd engaged with his showman's retirement. The England player who contributed least was Michael Vaughan but, as captain, he can take much of the credit for stealing a win, just as he took much of the blame for blowing it at Headingley.
Third, it means that medium-pace bowling is not dead. One of Nasser Hussain's mantras as captain held that on a flat Test pitch you need high pace or mystery spin. But the first two bowlers to take more than a couple of wickets at The Oval were old-fashioned medium-pacers, Bicknell and Shaun Pollock (the only mystery about the spinners, Giles and Paul Adams, was where their spin had gone). Bowling at 78mph or thereabouts, they had everything except pace: bounce, accuracy, movement both ways, and masterly control. Bicknell especially was great to watch, proving with his strong, high action that medium doesn't have to mean tedium. The ball he curled round a corner to clip Jacques Rudolph's off stump was a magical sight.
Part of the frisson lay in the knowledge that this might be his last Test, but Vaughan was right to hint afterwards that it doesn't have to be. At Bicknell's age, 34, Terry Alderman still had another year or two left taking the new ball for Australia, and a more recent Aussie, the off-spinner Colin Miller, was just embarking on a Test career which ran to 18 caps. If Bicknell does run out of steam, Martin Saggers of Kent is waiting in the wings. Bicknell's wickets bore out Angus Fraser's point that Duncan Fletcher has tended to field too many young bowlers, all straining for pace at the expense of precision.
England now have someone who can bend it like it Botham, and someone who can biff it like Botham. They're just not the same person. But there was some significance in Freddie Flintoff's performance here. It means he has achieved consistency at last, and has stated his case to fill the shoes not of Botham (nobody can) but of the two men who retired this season: Stewart and Darren Gough.
In the best England side of recent times, the XI that won four series in a row in 2000-01, Gough was the heart and Stewart the hub. Flintoff shares Gough's ability to galvanise the team and mobilise the crowd. He was not just a cheerleader but a firestarter.
His batting has made the big leap now, just as his bowling did in India two years ago, but he still hasn't mastered both at once. His strike-rate, poor enough 18 months ago at 101 balls, has got even worse, swelling to 114. As a batsman he makes things happen and can advance the game rapidly, but as a bowler he stops things happening, offering economy without a cutting edge. He has never taken a three-wicket haul in England, never mind a five-for. Troy Cooley, England's bowling advisor, needs to sit down with a pile of videos and work out how Flintoff manages to bowl apparently so well for so little reward. Once he starts taking wickets, Flintoff will be as central to this team as Stewart was.
Tim de Lisle is editor of Wisden 2003.Reuse content