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Australians are left to confront a bitter truth ...

... Humiliation at the hands of England. Kathy Marks reports

They came in their tens of thousands, bearing hangovers, leftover turkey sandwiches and hopes of a stirring show by Australia. But for home fans, the opening day of the Melbourne Test was a brutal letdown. Not only was their dream of winning back the Ashes all but snuffed out – they also endured one of the most depressing days in Australia's cricketing history.

That it should happen at the Boxing Day Test and at the holy temple of Australian sport, the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), only made the suffering at the hands of their arch-rivals England more excruciating.

"A greater disaster could only have involved the loss of human life," declared Will Swanton, News Limited's cricket writer, sparing no hyperbole.

The national mood in the lead-up to the fourth Test had been buoyant, after Australia staged a dramatic recovery to level the series in Perth last week.

No less a pundit than Shane Warne, soon to be honoured with a statue outside the MCG, was quoted yesterday morning predicting a victory for the home side, with the series to be decided at the final Test in Sydney.

Warne and many other commentators were forced to eat their words after Australia were bowled out for 98 runs, their lowest score against England at the MCG since 1877. The dismal showing meant that, barring unforeseen events, the latter are almost certain to win the Test and retain the Ashes.

The headlines – "Ashes Disgrace", "Darkest Day in 133 Years", "Aussies Lie Down in Boxing Day Disaster" – evoked the gloom. One observer called the first day "a horror show"; another wrote: "To use the Australian vernacular, we're stuffed."

Home spectators, along with millions of television viewers, could hardly have been more disappointed. For cricket fans, Christmas means the Boxing Day Test at the MCG, first played in 1968 and now a sporting institution.

"Are you going on Boxing Day?" is a refrain often heard in Melbourne in the run-up to the day, with no further explanation needed. Yesterday's Test was one of the most anticipated for years.

Luke Short was one of numerous Melburnians in despair yesterday. He told the Herald Sun: "To come here on the most famous cricket day of the year and for the Aussies to get walloped so badly, it's just such a downer."

Australia had, perhaps, raised its hopes too high. In the end the historically low score – the worst against England in 54 Tests – was not the only ignominious record set by Australia.

It was its worst first innings total ever at the MCG; its lowest score at the ground since 1981; its lowest on Australian soil since 1984; its lowest against England since 1968; and its lowest against England in Australia since 1936.

By the end, half of the 84,345 crowd had departed. But, as one cricket writer asked: "Who could blame them?"