Peter Siddle claimed four wickets to help give Australia the edge on the first day of the fifth and deciding Ashes test on Thursday at The Oval as England reached 307-8 at stumps after a promising start.
Ian Bell (72), captain Andrew Strauss (55), Jonathan Trott (41) and Paul Collingwood (24) all batted for a long time without going on to a substantial score. Siddle finished with figures of 4-63 and Mitchell Johnson had 2-69.
“I don’t know about whether we are in the box seat but we are in a pretty good position,” Siddle told reporters. “To get eight wickets on day one was great but with them over 300, it’s been a pretty even day.”
Andrew Flintoff, recalled to play his final test in place of Graham Onions, did not make an auspicious start, caught behind for 7 off Johnson from a carefree waft outside off stump.
England was 108-1 at lunch but succumbed to Australian bowling that improved throughout the day. Stuart Broad (26 not out) and Graeme Swann (caught behind off Siddle to the last ball of the day) took the total past 300.
England need to win the match to regain the Ashes after Australia levelled the series at 1-1 with an innings victory in the previous test. Australia would retain the urn with a draw.
One element that will encourage England is that several deliveries have created puffs of dust on a dry pitch, which should help its spinner Graeme Swann, while Australia opted not to play its leading slow bowler Nathan Hauritz.
“I guess with the start we had we could probably be in a slightly better position than we are,” Bell told reporters. “It wasn’t a typical Oval pitch, it was quite slow at times and with the amount of spin we’ve seen on day one - it’s quite unusual.
“We don’t really know what a good first innings score will be until Australia bat. But with 300 on the board that looks a good score on this pitch.”
Opener Alastair Cook was dismissed in the sixth over by Siddle for 10, edging a ball on off stump to Ricky Ponting at second slip. Strauss and Bell then added 102 for the second wicket.
Strauss plundered 11 boundaries and was in fluent touch, stroking three fours in one Siddle over. He registered the century stand in the second over after lunch but next over edged an innocuous ball outside off stump from Ben Hilfenhaus to the wicketkeeper. That was 114-2.
Bell had an early scare as one delivery, a bouncer over leg stump, flicked his bare wrist and carried through to wicketkeeper Brad Haddin. Only Siddle appealed for a catch despite replays showing the ball may have only missed the glove by millimeters.
It was a torrid start for Bell against Johnson, whose first three deliveries were all well-directed short balls, but he withstood the pressure and went on to his eight half-century against Australia.
Collingwood got out to a loose shot to a wide ball outside off stump from Siddle, edging to Mike Hussey at gully. He made a labored 24 in 90 minutes.
Bell’s bid for a maiden century against Australia was scuppered on the first ball after the tea break when a deflection off the inside edge of his bat knocked over off stump, giving Siddle his third wicket and 2-11 in nine overs in that spell either side of tea. The score was then 181-4.
“It was frustrating not to go on to a 100,” Bell said. “We had to graft it out and fight hard. The Oval is usually a lovely place to bat but it didn’t feel like that.”
Trott, South Africa-born like Strauss and Matt Prior, gained in composure after a textbook cover drive for four off Stuart Clark, though his next delivery landed safely off a leading edge.
Prior (18) departed after a promising stand with Trott worth 48, when he was outfoxed by a slower delivery from left-arm paceman Johnson. He spooned up a catch to Shane Watson at point to make the score 229-5.
Flintoff glided a Johnson ball to the third-man boundary for his first runs and next ball was struck by a bouncer on his left shoulder. He was the sixth wicket to fall (247-6) and closely followed by Trott, who was run out by short leg fielder Simon Katich after battling for 127 minutes.
Siddle, meantime, became the highest wicket-taker in the series in the day and continued an improvement from the first two tests when he was conceding four runs per over.