Australia make England pay for misplaced courage
Winning the toss and batting on a pitch offering many bowling benefits required far more courage than England have shown on this tour. In attempting to be brave, England's order failed to capture Andrew Flintoff's intent and have fallen badly behind.
Watching the tourists slip for 159 was probably not the plan when most of the massive crowd snapped up tickets in June. A sunny day with the series alive was the original hope and neither wish was granted. Shane Warne's 700th victim and a five-wicket haul satisfied the locals but the throng of England fans who jetted in for Christmas saw their team's limp and defensive effort.
The conditions were incredibly English - it was cool, there was rain around and the pitch was green - but after two months in Australia the tourists were unable to re-adjust. On Christmas Day there was snow in the Victorian Alps and the chilly conditions remained a day later in Melbourne, producing an Australian football-style crowd with coats and scarves replacing the shorts and singlets of the previous Ashes venues.
Instead of feeling at home and fighting through the movement on a juicy pitch, England dodged, edged, poked and suffered. Had Australia not dropped two catches and Adam Gilchrist missed a stumping the total would have been even worse. The openers tried to weather the start, when Glenn McGrath delivered 14 overs in a row for 24 runs, but a misjudged leave from Alastair Cook started the slide.
McGrath and Stuart Clark were superb and Brett Lee was dangerous but England should have fared better. Once again the batsmen waited to be dismissed and ignored run-scoring opportunities, finishing the innings at a rate of slightly more than two an over. The lack of intent was as worrying as the top order's trance against the fast men and the tail-enders' inability to deal with Warne.
England's final eight wickets fell for 58 and when Warne warmed up after tea he collected 4 for 18. The ball had been wet and was not in ideal shape for a legspinner, but Warne was able to take control and twist it on a first-day surface. "If it seams, it spins," he said at the change of innings.
Andrew Strauss was bowled by a delivery that turned smartly but was played poorly and two of the lower-order batsmen and Kevin Pietersen holed out to Warne. Flintoff pushed too hard at McGrath and Paul Collingwood could have been dismissed numerous times before he went the same way to Lee. The application was disappointing on such a grand occasion in front of an Ashes record of 89,155 spectators.
At the toss Ricky Ponting said he would have chosen to bat if he'd won but Australia would have done it differently. Ponting made the call in similar unsettling pitch conditions last year against South Africa and he and Michael Hussey reached first-innings centuries. Good balls were defended or left and bad deliveries were struck for boundaries.
England were unable to marry the approaches and they will do well to avoid a fourth consecutive loss. Apart from Strauss, who picked up his first fifty of the series, no batsman showed enough to justify Flintoff's call.
Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo