Essex claimed wickets at regular intervals before Tim Bresnan and Graeme Swann led England's recovery on day one of the LV= Challenge at Chelmsford.
After the national side were asked to bat first, albeit due to a pre-determined plan, plenty of batsmen failed to capitalise on good starts.
Joe Root struck 41, Kevin Pietersen 49 and Jonathan Trott 32 yet Essex were on top as young leg-spinner Tom Craddock claimed three wickets amid Tymal Mills and Sajid Mahmood grabbing two apiece.
However, Bresnan and Swann showed their top-order colleagues the way when hitting 55 and 62 respectively as Alastair Cook’s side closed on 328 for seven.
Cook and Root initially started positively in a 33-run opening stand, only for Mills – in the midst of a fierce opening spell – to have the former caught behind cutting.
Root, moved up to the top of England’s order, looked undeterred and immediately at ease when producing a series of well-timed strokes through the off side.
However, the 22-year-old received treatment after being struck on the knee by Mills and edged Mahmood to second slip soon after.
That scalp heralded the arrival of Pietersen, who picked up where he left off when striking 177 not out for Surrey against Yorkshire last week.
The number four, batting in England colours for the first time in three months, feasted on some wayward deliveries and timed the ball exceptionally from the off.
He and Trott put England in a good position at lunch, and it was extremely surprising when the latter was caught behind off Mills just after the interval.
Pietersen initially rolled on but departed when Craddock was introduced; having dropped a difficult caught-and-bowled chance previously, the tweaker did not repeat the trick.
Essex were suddenly in the ascendancy, illustrated best by an outstanding piece of fielding from Jaik Mickelburgh that ousted Ian Bell. Seeing the batsman shape up for a paddle-sweep, the man at short-leg rushed fine and snaffled a fine one-handed catch.
If Craddock’s second wicket owed much to masterful fielding, the third was a result of his own efforts as Matt Prior feathered a perfect leg-break behind.
England’s woes continued after tea as Jonny Bairstow, shouldering arms, was castled whem Mahmood found a hint of reverse swing.
At that stage, it appeared England’s bowlers might be called upon earlier than expected.
It was with the bat they prospered, though, as Bresnan and Swann combined in a fine partnership that became increasingly fluent.
Swann played adventurous strokes and showed a willingness to hit over the top, while his partner was typically pugnacious.
The upshot was England eventually ending a good opening day in a solid position, with the duo’s alliance having reached 116.
Live Text Commentary
6:21pm - STUMPS! - England 328/7; Bresnan 55, Swann 62 - An enthralling first day comes to an end with England in the ascendancy following Bresnan and Swann's fine restorative stand.
6:02pm - FIFTY! Bresnan (114b 4x4 0x6) - Bresnan follows his partner to 50 with a punched single down the ground. This has been a fine partnership.
5:48pm - FIFTY! Swann (67b 7x4 0x6) - Swann reaches a half-century off Tymal Mills, who has a fresh cherry in hand. Having pulled the previous delivery for four, he Chinese and conventionally cuts fours to move on to 55.
5:17pm - Swann and Bresnan continue to rebuild for England, who now look on course for a total in excess of 300.
4:56pm - It appears Tom Craddock is just beginning to tire, something Swann takes full advantage of when striking four fours in an over.
4:47pm - Cracking shot from Bresnan, who greets a Mahmood short ball with a fierce pull through midwicket.
4:26pm - Essex are keeping a lid on Graeme Swann and Tim Bresnan here.
4:11pm - WICKET! Bairstow b Mahmood 23; England 212/7 - England lose a seventh wicket just after tea, Sajid Mahmood getting a hint of reverse swing to bowl Jonny Bairstow shouldering arms.
3:41pm - TEA! - England 206/6; Bairstow 22, Bresnan 0 - Craddock completes a fine over and has figures of 9-2-32-3 at the interval. What a fine day it's been for Essex thus far.
3:37pm - WICKET! Prior c Foakes b Craddock; England 206/6 - What a piece of bowling that is from Craddock. He floats up a leg-break, gets sharp turn and Prior feathers behind.
3:26pm - Prior is beginning to get into his stride now as he and Bairstow score runs with relative ease.
3:07pm - Matt Prior gets off the mark with an off-side drive for four off Craddock, who is swept to the fence by Bairstow a couple of overs later.
2:48pm - WICKET! Bell c Mickleburgh b Craddock 13; England 172/5 - Wow! That is one of the finest pieces of fielding you will see. Bell goes for a paddle-sweep and Jaik Mickleburgh, seeing what is coming, shifts fine and takes an outstanding one-handed catch, effectively from leg slip. Earlier, Jonny Bairstow had punched and cover-drove boundaries off Craddock.
2:37pm - WICKET! Pietersen c & b Craddock 49; England 163/4 - Craddock makes no mistake this time, catching nonchalantly over his head after Pietersen had played an identical shot.
2:34pm - MISSED CHANCE! - Well, what a moment that would have been for young Tom Craddock. Pietersen hits the first ball he faces from the leg-spinner over mid-on for four and, next up, he attempts to strike aerially down the ground. The number four connects beautifully yet Craddock dives one-handed and just shells a fine effort; in reality, he saved four.
2:27pm - Sajid Mahmood is struggling here, with Pietersen and Bell striking three boundaries in his first two overs since returning.
2:13pm - That's more like it; Pietersen capitalises on Mills twice over-pitching with successive driven fours.
2pm - Essex are keeping things tight now with Ian Bell looking to settle and Kevin Pietersen appearing more circumspect.
1:45pm - WICKET! Trott c Foakes b Mills 32; England 115/3 - Essex continue to chip away with Jonathan Trott departing just after the break. The impressive Tymal Mills, back in the attack, induces an edge and Ben Foakes takes a simple catch.
1:02pm - LUNCH - England 115/2; Trott 32, Pietersen 21 - Trott adds a couple more boundaries off Bopara, while Pietersen continues to prosper as England reach the interval in a good position.
12:44pm - Kevin Pietersen is off to an imperious start, hitting full tosses for four either side of pulling Mahmood. He then strikes another through cover off the back foot, Ravi Bopara the bowler.
12:29pm - WICKET! Root c Westley b Mahmood 41; England 73/2 - Maybe that break hampered the opener's concentration; he edges Mahmood - finding gentle away movement - to second slip.
12:25pm - Root is receiving some medical attention on his knee after taking a blow from Mills. It looks like he will be okay to bat on.
12:16pm - Trott and Root seem to enjoy batting together and are settling in nicely today. The latter strokes Mahmood to the cover fence and, later in the over, his partner glances a boundary fine.
12:02pm - A wonderful cover-driven four from Trott brings the first hour to an end. England are 59 for one.
11:54am - Sajid Mahmood enters the attack but initially poses little threat. A full-toss from the former England paceman is eased to the cover rope by Root, who has dashed to 29.
11:44am - Root picks up his fourth four with an effortless back-foot punch through the covers off Mills. England subsequently end the 10th over on 45 for one, having scored freely on what looks to be a belting surface. Jonathan Trott is now alongside Root.
Mills bowling quick here! That was 94mph! #EngvEssex
— England Cricket (@ECB_cricket) June 30, 2013
11:30am - WICKET! Cook c Foakes b Mills 18; Eng 33/1 - Mills is proving expensive and concedes another four when Cook connects cleanly with a pull. However, after edging Masters through the slips, England's captain is then caught behind looking to cut one that was a little too close to his body.
11:16am - Mills hits 90mph almost immediately and then has an lbw appeal against Root turned down in his second set of six. The young Yorkshireman responds with a controlled steer to the third man boundary, helping England to 20 without loss from four overs.
11:05am - Alastair Cook gets off the mark immediately with a single, while Joe Root opens his account in streaky fashion with an edge that drops short of the slips and flies away for four. Tymal Mills, a left-armer boasting plenty of pace, shares the new ball.
10:59am - Veteran seamer David Masters, one of the most accurate bowlers in the county game, will send down the first over. Here we go!
10:54am - There is a huge crowd at Chelmsford and they do not have long to wait until play gets underway.
10:48am - The fact England are batting means we will get an early look at the new opening partnership between Cook and Joe Root, who has been preferred to Nick Compton at the top of the order.
Kevin Pietersen is back in England whites following his injury lay-off, while Jonny Bairstow will also hope to spend significant time in the middle ahead of the first Ashes Test at Trent Bridge, which is now just 10 days away.
Here are the two teams in full:
Essex: Tom Westley, Jaik Mickelburgh, Hamish Rutherford, Owais Shah, Ravi Bopara (captain), Mark Pettini, Ben Foakes, Sajid Mahmood, David Masters, Tom Craddock, Tymal Mills.
England: Alastair Cook (captain), Joe Root, Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell, Jonny Bairstow, Matt Prior, Tim Bresnan, Graeme Swann, Steven Finn, Graham Onions.
England team: Cook Root Trott Pietersen Bell Bairstow Prior Bresnan Swann Finn Onions #EngvEssex
— England Cricket (@ECB_cricket) June 30, 2013
10:37am - ESSEX WIN TOSS AND FIELD - Ravi Bopara, captaining Essex for this fixture, wins the toss, but it turns out that matters little. England will bat first, in glorious sunshine, and both Bopara and Alastair Cook have a chuckle as they confess this had already been decided!
England have rested James Anderson and Stuart Broad, with the latter suffering from a stiff shoulder. There is also no place for Boyd Rankin, which means the national team's pace attack is comprised of Tim Bresnan, Steven Finn and Graham Onions.
Essex announced yesterday that James Foster, their regular skipper, and Graham Napier would miss this game, but the county side still boast several experienced players in their line-up, including three men with Test caps for England - Bopara, Owais Shah and Sajid Mahmood.
10:25am - Good morning and welcome to ecb.co.uk's live coverage of the LV= Challenge match between Essex and England.
The Test side will be aiming to find their best form ahead of the Investec Ashes in this four-day fixture, which is scheduled to begin at 11am.
We will have news from the toss shortly, including confirmation of the England team.