Ashes under way in style
The build-up was longer than ever. There was certainly no shortage of hype. Expectations were sky high. Fortunately, the opening day of the npower Ashes series did not disappoint.
England closed it on 336 for seven, contrasting half-centuries from Kevin Pietersen, Paul Collingwood and Matt Prior having formed the backbone of their innings after they won the toss and chose to bat at Cardiff.
But that only tells parts of the story of a day which saw runs scored at not far short of four an over, wickets falling in clutches, several recovery operations with both bat and ball, and some wonderfully clean hitting.
A full house witnessed Pietersen and Collingwood make 69 and 64 respectively, rescuing England from a potentially perilous 90 for three with a resolute stand worth 138.
They perished in the space of five overs as England slipped to 241 for five, raising fears among a full house at Test cricket’s newest venue that the hosts had relinquished their grip on this game.
Matt Prior, who made a rapid 56, and Andrew Flintoff averted that threat courtesy of a stunning rip-roaring sixth-wicket stand of 86 at almost six an over, but the topsy-turvy nature of an absorbing day's play was summed up when Australia removed both late on with the second new ball.
Two wickets apiece for Ben Hilfenhaus, Mitchell Johnson and Peter Siddle ensured Australia will go into the second day harbouring realistic hopes of limiting England to a manageable total on a dry pitch which convinced the hosts to play two spinners and is expected to deteriorate throughout the game.
If Prior and Flintoff provided the bulk of the entertainment during their hour-long alliance, the centrepiece of the England innings was Pietersen's fourth-wicket partnership with Collingwood.
They batted throughout the entire afternoon session, Australia having taken the morning honours despite losing the toss and being asked to bowl first.
Hilfenhaus removed Alastair Cook in the eighth over, and Johnson cut short promising innings from Andrew Strauss and Ravi Bopara as the tourists threatened to take charge.
Though there was a hint of swing early on, Strauss and Cook prospered off their legs as Johnson and Hilfenhaus - preferred to Stuart Clark, the leading wicket-taker in the 2006-07 Ashes Down Under - initially struggled to locate the right line.
A loose stroke spelled the end for Cook, who pushed hard at a short ball outside off stump from Johnson. Mike Hussey showed great reflexes and athleticism to dive to his right at gully to claim a splendid one-handed catch.
Siddle struck Ravi Bopara in the throat with a delivery which reared up from short of a length before Strauss, having pulled Siddle and cut Johnson for four either side of drinks, perished for 30.
He was beaten for pace by Johnson, failing to evade a bouncer and succeeding only in gloving a straightforward catch to Michael Clarke, back-pedalling from first slip.
Bopara's 35, which featured a couple of uppish drives through the point region as well as a more emphatic shot along the ground past cover, came to an end when he fell victim to another clever piece of bowling.
He had already seen a mistimed drive off a Johnson slower ball loop harmlessly over mid-off before a similar delivery brought about his downfall, checking his stroke and gifting Phillip Hughes a simple chance at backward point.
Pietersen and Collingwood ensured it was Australia's last success until tea. They defended resolutely and were largely content to collect singles as Australia captain Ricky Ponting employed a field more akin to the middle overs of a one-day game, a tactic which restricted England’s run-scoring somewhat without ever threatening to break the partnership.
Pietersen favoured the paddle-sweep while Collingwood regularly worked the ball off his pads, with Nathan Hauritz - Australia’s only specialist spinner - posing a limited threat on a pitch which offered him assistance from the moment he was introduced in the 32nd over.
Though Hauritz bowled tidily - with the exception of two long hops in an over which were dispatched for four by Collingwood - the closest he came to taking a wicket before tea was a top-edged sweep from Pietersen which landed safely at fine-leg.
Pietersen and Collingwood went to 50 in successive overs, off 95 and 125 balls respectively, and it required the return of Hilfenhaus after the interval to separate them.
He induced a leaden-footed prod from Collingwood which found his outside edge and then the gloves of a diving Brad Haddin, but Simon Katich had a significantly easier task catching Pietersen as his incongruous sweep, to a ball from well outside off stump, looped tamely to short-leg via the batsman's helmet.
The situation emboldened rather than inhibited Prior and Flintoff, both of whom batted with immense bravado to bring the crowd to life as the shadows grew longer.
While Prior drove and cut beautifully, Flintoff clubbed his way to 37 off 51 balls, the highlight of which was a back-foot drive through cover to a delivery of fuller length from Johnson. You could almost have been in the Caribbean.
Flintoff played on attempting to drive Siddle on the up, and Prior, whose half-century spanned just 54 balls, was bowled by a superbly directed inswinger via a faint inside edge.
Those who could claim with any certainty which side was on top at the close were few and far between.