The occasion, the crowd, the imminent retirement of Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, and the prospect of a first Ashes whitewash in 85 years ought to have supplied England with all the motivation they required on the opening day of the fourth Test here yesterday. Indeed, in the past few weeks England's cricketers have spoken continuously about pride and character, yet there was precious little of these commodities on show here yesterday as Andrew Flintoff's dispirited side put in their most abject batting performance of the Ashes.
Inevitably it was Warne, playing in front of his home crowd for the final time, who thrived most on cricket's biggest stage. The champion leg-spinner became the first bowler to take 700 Test wickets when Andrew Strauss played over his 20th delivery of the day and soon afterwards he claimed the 37th five-wicket haul of his stellar career.
Warne was brilliant but England's batsmen failed to make him work hard for his glory, getting themselves out with an array of thoughtless strokes. It was not just the manner of the dismissals that disappointed. The demeanour of England's players suggested they would rather be somewhere else.
Such an attitude is unacceptable. Playing in front of a packed Melbourne Cricket Ground on Boxing Day, whether the Ashes have been lost or not, is the reason why young boys want to play cricket. It is an experience that should inspire, not inhibit.
Flintoff's decision to bat in ideal conditions for seam bowling will receive plenty of criticism but it was not the reason for England's paltry total of 159. At the mid-point of the day England had progressed, albeit unconvincingly, to 101 for 2. It was Warne, not a seamer, who instigated England's collapse and these factors reinforce the view that it was not Flintoff's decision that caused England's woe.
In a wholehearted attempt to make amends the England captain took two late wickets. Justin Langer was caught behind driving wildly and Brett Lee, the nightwatchman, gloved a snorter through to Chris Read. Ricky Ponting survived the hat-trick ball but the day, again, belonged to Warne and Australia.
Ponting made Melburnians wait for almost four hours before inviting Warne to bowl on a cold, wet, miserable morning. In conditions like this spinners are not expected to succeed, but Warne is no ordinary spinner. The 37-year-old received a standing ovation as he took his long-sleeved sweater off and he immediately settled into a good rhythm.
And Strauss became the second most popular man in Australia when he played all around a full leg-break in Warne's fourth over and was comprehensively bowled. Warne went on a little arc-shaped run as the Australian fans in a crowd of 89,155 roared. After being mobbed by his team-mates the hero emerged to shake hands with Kevin Pietersen. On leaving the pack he raised his arm in the air and showed the ball to the crowd. It was a special moment for a very special player.
Warne bowled well, as did all of Australia's bowlers, but England were awful once Paul Collingwood had been dismissed. Accumulating runs on a slow seaming pitch is taxing but it is a skill English cricketers should be accustomed to. If the stands and the crowd were taken away, you could easily have been at Derby in May.
McGrath was immaculate in the morning, bowling a 14-over spell either side of lunch. He beat the outside edge of the bat on numerous occasions but England, to their credit, were fighting admirably. Alastair Cook was unfortunate to touch a delivery from Brett Lee that he attempted to leave alone but Ian Bell fell to a poor shot, playing all round a full ball from Stuart Clark, who is having an outstanding series. He naturally bowls a slightly fuller length than McGrath and this enabled him to look more menacing than the veteran. Clark should have had Collingwood out leg before before he had scored a run but the umpire Rudi Koertzen gave him not out.
That Collingwood reached 28 was something of an achievement. The plucky right-hander could have been dismissed on two other occasions before he had reached double figures - he was dropped by Adam Gilchrist behind the stumps and survived another leg before shout - but he continued to fight as though his life was on the line.
Strauss showed similar application while posting his first half-century of the series. It took him 30 overs to hit his first boundary and his inability to break Australia's stranglehold eventually took its toll. Strauss and Collingwood had put on 57 for the third wicket before Lee made the crucial breakthrough.
Collingwood should have left the delivery that dismissed him but he flirted at it and Ponting took a sharp catch at second slip. Then, 29 minutes after Warne had been asked to bowl, the crowd got what they were waiting for when Strauss clipped loosely at a leg-break and was bowled middle stump. In three balls 101 for 2 had become 101 for 4 and England were in trouble.
Flintoff came out trying to be positive. The captain smashed Warne down the ground for four and attempted several booming drives at Lee. But these were not controlled shots. They were the strokes of a man at the end of his tether, and it was only a matter of time before his innings came to an inglorious end.
The ball that dismissed Flintoff was one of Clark's beauties. It bounced and left him off the pitch, clipped the shoulder of the bat and looped to Warne at first slip. Read looked as though he could go on any ball and he did when he drove recklessly at Warne and was caught at short extra cover.
This left Pietersen batting with the tail and England were once again forced to go through the pitiful saga of turning down singles so that he could protect the lower order. For a batsman of Pietersen's class this is a horrible way to bat. He wants to confront and dominate the best bowlers in the world, but it is impossible to do this when there are five or six fielders on the boundary giving him a single. Pietersen was wrong to let it but his frustration showed.
His mood can only have worsened when Sajid Mahmood wafted loosely at McGrath and was caught behind - it was McGrath's 150th Ashes wicket - and Stephen Harmison slogged Warne to mid-on. With Pietersen still at the crease it was impossible to comprehend why such brainless shots had been played.
Pietersen was caught on the boundary when he attempted to hit Warne for six and Monty Panesar soon followed. Warne finished with 5 for 39 in 17.2 wonderful overs. Even the odd Englishman will miss him when he is gone.
First Day ratings
Andrew Strauss 6
Will smile at his dismissal in years to come.
Alastair Cook 3
Needs to get his bat further out of the way when leaving the ball.
Ian Bell 2
Poor shot. Aussies wore him down.
Paul Collingwood 4
Awful innings but competed hard.
Kevin Pietersen 4
Needs to bat at four from now on.
Andrew Flintoff 4
Bowled with fire, batted in fear.
Chris Read 2
Playing for his England career over the next 10 days.
Brett Lee 5
Getting better as the series progresses.
Glenn McGrath 6
Deserved better. Wickets will probably come in second innings.
Stuart Clark 7
Another impressive display.
Shane Warne 10
What more can you say?
Andrew Symonds 5
Could have had a couple of wickets. Brilliant in the field.
Shot of the day
Matthew Hoggard - clearly offended at batting below Panesar - hooking McGrath to square-leg boundary.
Ball of the day
Andrew Flintoff's pearl to dismiss Lee. It bounced and clipped the glove on its way through to Chris Read.
Moment of the day
Ricky Ponting kept the crowd waiting for Warne and took the leggie's sun hat between overs. The crowd cheered but the pair were only messing about.
Debate of the day
Should Flintoff have chosen to bat after winning the toss? No. But that was not the real reason for England's paltry total of 159, especially after reaching 101 for 2.
First-day scoreboard from Melbourne
England won toss
England - First Innings
A J Strauss b Warne 50
205 min, 132 balls, 1 four
A N Cook c Gilchrist b Lee 11
50 min, 37 balls, 1 four
I R Bell lbw b Clark 7
46 min, 30 balls
P D Collingwood c Ponting b Lee 28
105 min, 82 balls, 4 fours
K P Pietersen c Symonds b Warne 21
103 min, 70 balls
*A Flintoff c Warne b Clark 13
36 min, 31 balls, 1 four
ÝC M W Read c Ponting b Warne 3
27 min, 17 balls
S I Mahmood c Gilchrist b McGrath 0
12 min, 9 balls
S J Harmison c Clarke b Warne 7
11 min, 12 balls, 1 four
M S Panesar c Symonds b Warne 4
27 min, 19 balls
M J Hoggard not out 9
15 min, 10 balls, 1 four
Extras (b2 lb1 nb3) 6
Total (323 min, 74.2 overs) 159
Fall: 1-23 (Cook), 2-44 (Bell), 3-101 (Collingwood), 4-101 (Strauss), 5-122 (Flintoff), 6-136 (Read), 7-136 (Mahmood), 8-145 (Harmison), 9-146 (Pietersen), 10-159 (Panesar).
Bowling: Lee 13-4-36-2 (nb2) (7-2-22-1 6-2-14-1); McGrath 20-8-37-1 (nb1) (14-7-24-0 6-1-13-1); Clark 17-6-27-2 (6-1-9-1 6-3-8-0 5-2-10-1); Symonds 7-2-17-0; Warne 17.2-4-39-5 (one spell each).
Progress: Rain delayed start until 11.01am. RSP 12.16-12.58pm. 36-1 (Strauss 15, Bell 7) 15.4 overs. Early lunch taken. RSP 1.29-1.39pm 46-2 (Strauss 21, Collingwood 2) 22.4 overs. 50: 111 min, 24 overs. 100: 199 min, 45 overs. Tea: 117-4 (Pietersen 3, Flintoff 13) 52 overs. 150: 316 min, 72.1 overs. Innings closed: 5.38pm.
Strauss's 50: 196 min, 128 balls, 1 four.
Australia - First Innings
J L Langer c Read b Flintoff 27
45 min, 29 balls, 3 fours
M L Hayden not out 17
56 min, 36 balls, 2 fours
B Lee c Read b Flintoff 0
2 min, 1 ball
*R T Ponting not out 0
7 min, 3 balls
Extras (lb1 nb3) 4
Total (for 2, 56 min, 11 overs) 48
Fall: 1-44 (Langer), 2-44 (Lee).
To bat: M E K Hussey, M J Clarke, A Symonds, ÝA C Gilchrist, S K Warne, S R Clark, G D McGrath.
Bowling: Hoggard 6-2-27-0 (nb1); Flintoff 5-1-20-2 (nb2) (one spell each).
Umpires: Aleem Dar (Pak) and R E Koertzen (SA).
TV replay umpire: R L Parry.
Match referee: R S Madugalle.