For almost two hours it seemed as though Andrew Flintoff would finish his unfulfilled Ashes tour on something of a high. After six weeks of torment, pain and disappointment the England captain had at last found form with the bat and looked set to post his first hundred in Australia.
Ricky Ponting's vibrant and classy bowling attack had tested Flintoff's technique, while England's inadequate batting was again causing him to question his sanity. Flintoff handled both with aplomb as England's lower order again failed to give the team's last recognised batsman the support he needed. Flintoff deserved to reach a sixth Test century but he fell on 89 attempting to hit Stuart Clark on to Bondi Beach.
The frustration that comes with batting with the tail forced Kevin Pietersen to ask if he could move up the order, yet Flintoff appeared more than ready to eke out every run he could when placed in an uncomfortable position. Brett Lee bowled with pace and hostility, but Flintoff kept the good balls out and clobbered the bad ones for four. Lee was twice slapped to the backward point boundary and once driven hugely down the ground for four. Flintoff in this sort of form makes magnificent viewing.
If only he could have batted like this all series.In his previous eight innings he had scored only 158 runs at an average of 22.57. The majority of those had come in a carefree and unconvincing manner in Perth and Melbourne when the fate of the Ashes had been settled.
This innings, however, contained all the attributes Flintoff has spoken about in the build-up to each Test. It was defiant, full of pride and showed immense character. The fact that the innings has not changed the course of the Test is not down to him.
After losing their last six wickets for the addition of 47 runs, and being bowled out for 291, England needed to strike with the new ball. And they did when James Anderson strangled Justin Langer down the leg-side. It is obvious that Langer does not have the same scriptwriter as Shane Warne, who collected his 1,000th international wicket in the morning session when he trapped Monty Panesar in front.
Langer is having a Test to forget. The soon to be retired opener has dropped three relatively easy slip catches and the method of his dismissal summed up how cruel sport can be.
If England's collapse highlighted the team's batting problems, Anderson's opening spell epitomised the woe of the bowlers. His first five overs conceded three runs and contained the wicket of Langer. The next two leaked 17 and Australia were away.
Matthew Hayden and Ponting took Australia to 100 but both fell either side of the tea interval. Hayden edged a cut at the impressive Stephen Harmison to second slip and Anderson at mid-on brilliantly ran out Ponting as he attempted to take a quick single.
Panesar had another indifferent day. The spinner's status among the fans may have increased in Australia but his bowling has failed to reach the heights of last summer. He had a big appeal for a caught behind off Michael Hussey, which resulted in him ending up at leg gully. Umpire Billy Bowden was correct to give the batsman not out, as he was to warn the bowler about his behaviour. There is a fine line between enthusiasm and dissent, and Panesar is in danger of falling the wrong side of it.
Michael Clarke was undone by the steep bounce of Harmison. The fast bowler gets better with every game he plays but it is of little use when the cigars are being handed out.
England's dismal batting in the morning highlighted why they have been unable to compete in the series. The Test was delicately poised when play resumed and a good session for England would have placed them in a healthy position.
Batting was always going to be tricky against an Australian attack armed with the second new ball, yet England again failed to handle pressure during a crunch period. The bowling was of a high quality but that should be expected.
Paul Collingwood should have been dismissed by the fifth ball of the day but Langer grassed a low catch at fourth slip. The drop, off the bowling of Lee, did not prove costly as a Glenn McGrath leg-cutter accounted for him when he had added two more runs to his score.
Whether Collingwood should have been facing the ball that dismissed him is debatable. England's running between the wickets has been poor and this was highlighted when Flintoff and Collingwood completed only three runs following the captain's drive to the extra cover boundary. The shot allowed Flintoff to pass 50 but more vigorous running would have allowed the pair to collect four runs and keep Collingwood off strike.
There was little Collingwood could do about the lifter that trimmed the edge of his bat but the same could not be said of Chris Read, who chased a delivery from Lee which was short of a length and was caught behind. Read has kept wicket beautifully but his Test career is likely to end if he fails to post a decent score in England's second innings.
Few believed Sajid Mahmood would be the answer to England's No 8 quandary and, after a third successive duck, the plan must surely be abandoned. Lee fully deserved his wickets. The first-ball dismissal of Mahmood left the New South Wales man on a hat-trick in front of his home crowd but the all-important delivery was short and very wide.
The loss of three wickets in as many overs left Flintoff with the tail. Harmison gave his close mate support and a couple of boundaries were biffed. Unlike Pietersen, who seemed to look for singles, fours and sixes, Flintoff skilfully placed the ball in gaps and completed twos.
When Clark trapped Harmison in front Flintoff took more risks but Clark was too good and Adam Gilchrist too athletic.
Second Day ratings
Andrew Flintoff 8
If only he could have batted like this earlier in the tour.
Paul Collingwood 3
Little he could do against a McGrath jaffa.
Chris Read 3
Kept well again, but must score runs to keep Test career alive.
Sajid Mahmood 1
Third consecutive duck - perhaps his mark should be 0.
Stephen Harmison 7
Monty Panesar 3
Bowling is acceptable rather than good.
James Anderson 5
The usual mixed bag.
Glenn McGrath 8
Could easily have had six wickets.
Brett Lee 8
Pace and hostility continue to discourage England's lower order.
Stuart Clark 8
Future leader of Australia's attack.
Justin Langer 3
Finale is not going according to plan.
Matthew Hayden 3
Should have gone on to get a big one.
Ricky Ponting 4
Must have believed the fielder was Panesar when he set off for a quick single.
Ball of the Day
What can you do when an 80mph ball pitches on a good length and moves away from you? If you are unlucky, you edge it. Paul Collingwood was unfortunate and it gave Glenn McGrath his only wicket of the day.
Shot of the Day
Andrew Flintoff batted superbly while posting his highest Test score since his hundred against Australia in 2005. The best stroke was a straight drive off Brett Lee. It nearly took the umpire Billy Bowden out of the game.
Moment of the Day
Who gives a stuff whether Sir Richard Branson thinks the Ashes should remain in Australia? It was great to hear a true lover of the game expose his limited knowledge of this most cherished prize. Just get your trains running on time.
Debate of the Day
What is Sajid Mahmood doing in the team if he bowls only four overs? Good question. Perhaps England should have played Ed Joyce and batted him at seven. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, though.
Second-day scoreboard from Sydney
England won toss; second day of five
England - First Innings
(Overnight: 234 for 4)
P D Collingwood c Gilchrist b McGrath 27
120 min, 73 balls, 4 fours
*A Flintoff c Gilchrist b Clark 89
195 min, 142 balls, 11 fours, 1 six
ÝC M W Read c Gilchrist b Lee 2
13 min, 9 balls
S I Mahmood c Hayden b Lee 0
2 min, 1 ball
S J Harmison lbw b Clark 2
51 min, 24 balls
M S Panesar lbw b Warne 0
20 min, 14 balls
J M Anderson not out 0
6 min, 5 balls
Extras (lb5 w3 nb2) 10
Total (462 min, 103.4 overs) 291
Fall: 1-45 (Strauss) 2-58 (Cook) 3-166 (Pietersen) 4-167 (Bell) 5-245 (Collingwood) 6-258 (Read) 7-258 (Mahmood) 8-282 (Harmison) 9-291 (Flintoff) 10-291 (Panesar).
Bowling: McGrath 29-8-67-3 (nb2) (7-1-22-0, 8-2-23-0, 6-1-12-2, 8-4-10-1); Lee 22-5-75-3 (w1) (4-1-12-0, 8-2-25-1, 3-0-13-0, 7-2-25-2); Clark 24-6-62-3 (w2) (7-2-18-1, 7-1-14-0, 2-0-10-0, 3-0-12-0, 5-3-8-2); Warne 22.4-1-69-1 (13-0-43-0, 6-1-16-0, 3.4-0-10-1); Symonds 6-2-13-0 (4-0-13-0, 2-2-0-0).
Progress: Second day (10.19am start; min 93 overs): New ball taken immediately. 250: 376 min, 86.4 overs. Innings closed: 12.17pm.
Bell's 50: 149 min, 108 balls, 6 fours. Flintoff's 50: 109 min, 89 balls, 6 fours, 1 six.
Australia - First Innings
J L Langer c Read b Anderson 26
41 min, 27 balls, 4 fours
M L Hayden c Collingwood
b Harmison 33
113 min, 77 balls, 5 fours
*R T Ponting run out Anderson 45
96 min, 72 balls, 6 fours
M E K Hussey not out 37
114 min, 98 balls, 3 fours, 1 six
M J Clarke c Read b Harmison 11
39 min, 24 balls, 1 four
A Symonds not out 22
49 min, 34 balls, 3 fours
Extras (lb8 w4 nb2) 14
Total (for 4, 228 min, 55 overs) 188
Fall: 1-34 (Langer) 2-100 (Hayden) 3-118 (Ponting) 4-155 (Clarke).
To bat: ÝA C Gilchrist, S K Warne, B Lee, S R Clark, G D McGrath.
Bowling: Flintoff 6-0-31-0 (nb2, w1) (3-0-19-0, 3-0-12-0); Anderson 17-7-55-1 (w1) (7-3-20-1, 5-2-20-0, 5-2-15-0); Harmison 16-5-34-2 (w2) (4-0-23-0, 4-2-2-1, 8-3-9-1); Mahmood 4-1-15-0 (one spell); Panesar 12-0-45-0 (11-0-36-0, 1-0-9-0).
Progress: Second day: Lunch: 4-0 (Langer 4, Hayden 0) 1 over. 50: 52 min, 11.5 overs. 100: 110 min, 24.3 overs. Tea: 109-1 (Ponting 37, Hussey 3) 29 overs. 150: 172 min, 41.2 overs. Rain stopped play: 4.26-5.34pm 155-4 (Hussey 29, Symonds 0) 43.1 overs.
Umpires: Aleem Dar (Pak) and B F Bowden (NZ).
TV replay umpire: P D Parker.
Match referee: R S Madugalle.