Historians may conclude that England lost the Ashes at 4.50am yesterday. That was when their sleep and sweet dreams of career-defining triumph – dreams that they had every right to nurture – were rudely interrupted by a fire alarm at the team hotel.
Fewer than 10 hours later they had been dismissed by Australia for 102 in the fourth npower Test and barely two more hours after that Australia had a lead. By the close the tourists were 196 for 4 after three sessions which could only have a helter-skelter as a companion piece, and although this was but the first day of the five allocated, no judge, with or without marbles, was calling anything other than an Australian victory perhaps as soon as tomorrow.
To get out of Leeds with anything but a defeat would take cricket of a wholly different quality from that which England purveyed yesterday. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong, from the unwanted gathering outside the city centre hotel on.
They lent a perverse twist to the axiom that when the going gets tough the tough get going. The going was tough all right, but England were softer than big girls' blouses. Almost the whole team from captain down played as though they had been deprived of sleep for a month and tortured until they promised to let the Aussies have their way.
The batsmen failed to play in anything approaching a measured fashion against bowling which observed traditional virtues and the bowlers decided to ignore what they had witnessed and banged it in short of a length against batsmen who were in a hurry to express their dominance.
By contrast, Australia, who had promised as much, were bristling and controlled. They seized this match by the scruff of its neck with the clarity of men who had slept like babies.
Ricky Ponting, their captain, responded to the habitual booing of his entry to the crease, by scoring 78 seamless runs, the first 50 of them in 63 balls. The only surprise was that he got out. Australia's attack were all in credit but Stuart Clark, strangely overlooked for this series until now, was a model of swing bowling probity. But his three wickets were outdone by the five for Peter Siddle, who must have been a candidate for the 12th man duties.
What kerfuffle there was before the match began. No sooner had England arrived at the ground with matchsticks in their eyes than it was confirmed that Andrew Flintoff would not play because of his knee injury. This news, though expected, immediately gave England a brittle look: it was the first time since December 2003 that they had played a Test without either of their "big two", Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen. Succour may have been gained from the fact that they won on that occasion – though it was only against Bangladesh.
A little more than half an hour later, England's wicketkeeper Matthew Prior had a back spasm during his pre-match warm-up routine. He left the field rotating his shoulder and it seemed that he would have to withdraw. Tim Ambrose of Warwickshire was put on standby, Paul Collingwood began practising his keeping skills but just in case, England asked for a delay in the toss, a request that was granted.
Andrew Strauss duly won it and chose to bat. He must have known that he was standing in conditions yearned for by swing bowlers but he must also have reckoned that if England could survive the first hour a mountain of runs might accrue. He then had to give three interviews to broadcasters about his reasoning and his team which then left him 14 minutes to prepare to open the batting. He was out leg before to the first ball of the match. Nobody except perhaps a convention at a San Francisco gay rally could have been more out but Billy Bowden failed to show the dreaded crooked finger.
Maybe it could only get better for Strauss after that. Not so. His dreams became nightmares. In the fourth over of the innings he became Australia's first victim when his booming drive flew off a thick edge high to the right of third slip, where Marcus North plucked the ball from the air as though he was the third crane on the ground, joining the two on the building site behind him.
With Strauss gone so early there was instantly the distinct suspicion that England's batting would be as fragile as the terracotta urn which holds the Ashes. Before long, Ravi Bopara, a walking wicket against this opposition, had parried tamely to gully. It was an insipid dismissal, and Bopara's impersonation of a No 3 Test batsman is becoming less convincing than a pub karaoke artiste murdering "My Way".
Mitchell Johnson nailed Ian Bell with a bouncer that was right on the money, unlike the batsman who made his decision about how to play it late and wrongly. That was 39 for 3 and now Clark was in the attack. For reasons best known to Australia's selectors he had been left out of the side for the first three Tests. He bowled beautifully, full and outside off and he had three wickets in 21 balls.
That really was that for England and Siddle frightened the tail out after lunch, extracting bounce which might have fooled England into doing likewise. Stephen Harmison had a wicket in his first over on return, a typical, fast rising ball nudged to leg slip. But it was bewildering thereafter to watch England engulfed by naivety, misguidedness and inflexibility, plainly ignoring the obvious like men who would say left was right.
By the time they began to sort it out, Australia were over the hill, soon to be far away. Briefly, England pulled it back as three wickets fell for 19 runs and – what was this? – the bowlers were pitching the ball up and making it swing. The grave suspicion was that it was already too late and by the close the breach had been repaired by Michael Clarke. England would not have needed a fire alarm to interrupt their sleep last night.
Headingley timeline: How action unfolded
*9.20am: Freddie KO
Official confirmation arrives that Andrew Flintoff has been ruled out with his knee injury.
*9.58am: Prior delivery
Wicket-keeper Matthew Prior leaves practice rubbing his shoulder after suffering a back spasm during practice. Paul Collingwood starts practice. Only he can be looking forward to this.
*10.40am: Strauss's toss
The toss, delayed while England check Prior's fitness, takes place. The spasm subsides and he is in. Strauss wins toss.
*11.00am: Strauss let off
First ball swings into Strauss's pads and for all the world he is leg before. Only umpire Billy Bowden thinks otherwise.
*11.17am: First to fall
Strauss does not make the most of his escape, becoming England's first victim.
*1.01pm: Learning curve
Stuart Broad clips to short square leg and England's disastrous morning ends at 72 for 6.
*2.22pm: All out
England's final wicket falls, the last four going in 45 min.
*3.05pm: Fast start
Australia rattle along at eight runs an over and Ponting is playing a remarkable innings. For some reason the boos from the fearsome Western Terrace appear to leave him unaffected.
Match Details: Weather and TV
Sunny in the morning, overcast later but remaining dry for most of the weekend.
Maximum temperature 2C.
10.00-19.00, Sky Sports 1, HD1 Highlights 19.15-20.00, Five
10.00-19.00, Sky Sports 1, HD1 Highlights 19.15-20.00, FiveReuse content