The perfect present
First the good news for Australia: Michael Clarke, struggling all series, was his side's top scorer. Phillip Hughes, under enormous pressure, was just four runs back. Graeme Swann failed to take a single wicket.
The bad news? How long do you have?
Even in a series that has seen some spectacular implosions, this was an astounding collapse, a capitulation so bewildering and absolute that Australia's hopes of regaining the Ashes might well have gone down the gurgler with it.
98 all out doesn't happen very often in grade cricket, let alone an Ashes Test. It certainly doesn't happen on Boxing Day at the MCG, the single most iconic day and arena in the Aussie sporting calendar.
For it to be followed by an England reply of 157-0, with Australian fans pouring out of the ground in their shell-shocked thousands and bright sunshine baking any remaining juice from the track, was a Christmas gift beyond anything Andrew Strauss could ever have wished for.
In a Test series that has swung so violently from one team to the other we should beware of attaching too much significance to just two sessions. Australian success early at the Gabba ended in English ascendancy and then domination in Adelaide; a side which had won by an innings was then demolished by 267 runs in Perth.
But 98? This was Australia's lowest first innings score at the MCG in history, even worse than the 104 they posted in the first ever Test back in 1877. It's less than Mike Hussey alone was averaging coming into the game. As one fan muttered on his rapid way back out onto Punt Road two hours before the close, it was a total that would be considered bad by Zimbabwe, rotten by Bangladesh.
Anderson finished 4-44. Photo: Getty
The Boxing Day Test is an Australian cultural staple. Across the country, families gather in front of the television to ease away the festive hangovers and indigestion.
This was a display that had even the dog feeling nauseous. The turkeys were wearing baggy green caps, the stuffing good and proper.
When Strauss won the toss and opted to field, many of the 84,500 eager patrons packed into the precipitous stands of this vast concrete bowl raised their eyebrows. The pitch looked green but the forecast was good. The average first innings score here in the Sheffield Shield this season is over 300.
With England's leading wicket-taker Steve Finn left out in favour of Tim Bresnan, to many the definition of an honest workhorse, some even wondered where the scalps might come from.
They shouldn't have worried. This was a bowling display as disciplined as the one in Perth had been disappointing, the length miserly, the line relentless.
While the pitch offered a little and the grey clouds above a fraction more, England's three seamers squeezed every last droplet of fun and fizz from what was on offer.
James Anderson bowled beautifully, moving the ball in and away through the air as if it were on curved rails. Chris Tremlett, fresh from his eight wickets at the Waca, found steep bounce and late lift where none was obvious. Bresnan, as barrel-chested as a circus strongman, offered exactly the relentless control that Finn had been unable to provide in Perth.
Despite all that, the Australian batsmen threw themselves into the abyss with merry abandon. Hughes slashed away like a man clearing bush. Clarke prodded as if batting in total darkness. Brad Haddin might as well have carried the ball to the slip cordon on a silver salver and offered it up with an obsequious bow.
Ponting finished with yet another headache. Photo: Getty
When five wickets had gone for 66 runs, English celebrations were still under control. No-one could forget that Australia had somehow salvaged a win from the same troubled waters a week ago at the Waca. Few wanted reminding that Andrew Flintoff's team had their opposite numbers 84-5 at this ground four years ago and yet still took a dreadful pasting.
For the first time all series, however, Mike Hussey was part of the problem rather than solution. Steve Smith is nothing like Andrew Symonds, whose 150 in the preceding Ashes Test here had taken that match from England's grasp. Wickets fell and jaws dropped.
The defining moment in a morning of carnage came in the final over before lunch, when Anderson's perfect tempter across the bows drew the faintest of touches from Hussey's uncertain push.
Hussey has been close to impregnable in the three matches so far, not so much a thorn in England's side as a festering wound. When Matt Prior clapped his blue gloves around the thin edge in the final over before lunch, his team-mates celebrated as if Christmas 2011 had come 364 days early, an unmistakable chorus of the Final Countdown parping from Billy Cooper's Barmy Army bugle.
Australia still harboured hope. If Anderson and Bresnan could find swing, why not Ryan Harris and Ben Hilfenhaus? Mitchell Johnson had blown the England top order away in Perth. What was to stop him doing the same?
It never happened. It never looked like happening. Harris, lethal in the second innings at the Waca, could find nothing. Hilfenhaus was tidy but no more. Johnson, summoned as early as the sixth over, was off again just three later, his radar as off-beam as it had been out of this world a few days ago.
England could yet throw this position away. With clouds forecast for Monday morning, Australia's bowlers will have a chance to bite back. In the Centenary test at this ground in 1977, the home side were bowled out for just 138 on the first day but still came back to win.
Yet so one-sided was this opening exchange that it will take either a truly extraordinary display from at least two of Ricky Ponting's bowlers, or a surrender of the most abject kind - something to surpass even the darkest days of previous Ashes tours - for England to now lose this match.
For England supporters waking up sore-headed back home, the scoreboard must have seemed almost too good to be true, an aberration of the bleary eye or the continuation of some cheeseboard-fuelled dream.
In that case, let's finish with a cold hard stat.
Five teams have been bowled out for less than 100 in a Test and gone on to win, it's true. But the last time was in 1907, and the first four all in the 19th century.