England lose their way
The loss of five wickets in the evening session undermined England's hopes of posting a commanding total in the decisive final Ashes Test against Australia at the Brit Oval.
Ian Bell matched Andrew Strauss’ feat in passing 50 as England, chasing the victory which would see them regain the Ashes, moved on to a potentially dominant 176 for two.
However, the tireless Peter Siddle orchestrated a slide that saw five wickets tumble for 92 runs as Australia mounted a fightback made all the more impressive by the fact that their seamers received precious little assistance from a flat, dry surface.
Siddle followed up his early dismissal of Alastair Cook by removing Paul Collingwood and Bell, for 72, either side of tea, while Matt Prior and Andrew Flintoff perished in the space of 14 balls from Mitchell Johnson.
When Test debutant Jonathan Trott, who belied his nerves to make a measured 41, was superbly run out by Simon Katich at short-leg, England were wobbling on 268 for seven and in danger of wasting their fine start.
Stuart Broad, whose batting was one of the few bright spots in the innings defeat at Headingley Carnegie, checked the slide with assistance from Graeme Swann, but Siddle capped a sterling day’s work by finding Swann’s edge off what proved to be the last ball of the day to leave the hosts 307 for eight.
While England will surely be disappointed not to have made better use of the platform provided by Strauss and Bell, the value of a total in excess of 300 is heightened by the fact that Australia, who opted against picking a specialist spinner, are likely to have to bat last on a pitch showing significant signs of wear and offering appreciable turn midway through the opening day.
Winning the toss on a typically flat Oval surface represented a major boon for England, but the tourists landed the first significant blow when Siddle removed Cook in the sixth over of the day, smartly taken at second slip by Ricky Ponting after being squared up on the back foot.
Initially watchful, Strauss got moving with successive off-side boundaries at Ben Hilfenhaus’ expense, while Bell survived a caught behind appeal of his wrist down the leg side off Siddle to drive the same bowler wide of mid-on, steer him past the slip cordon and clip him off his hips for four.
Despite the pitch offering the quicker bowlers little in the way of bounce or sideways movement, the introduction of Mitchell Johnson immediately discomforted Bell, who was fortunate to glove the third of three successive bouncers safely wide of short-leg before he had scored.
A composed Strauss continued to prosper off his legs and, although Bell received treatment from physio Kirk Russell after complaining of pain behind his left knee, boundaries flowed remarkably freely thereafter.
Siddle was punished for overpitching three times in an over, Strauss following up an immaculate straight drive with a sweetly timed clip through midwicket to go to an 89-ball half-century containing 10 fours.
That Bell was noticeably less secure - he sliced Hilfenhaus over gully and watched an inswinger arrow in through the gate and narrowly miss off stump - mattered little to the England fans who saw their side surpass their first-innings score of 102 at Headingley for the loss of a solitary wicket.
Their optimism was dented, however, when Strauss perished for 55 in the third over after lunch, hanging his bat limply at a delivery from Hilfenhaus which slanted across him and providing wicketkeeper Brad Haddin with a straightforward catch.
Bell, no doubt mindful of the importance of this period of play, responded admirably. Though there was an occasional loose stroke outside off stump, he batted with commendable application to bring up his fifty, which spanned 73 balls.
Australia’s tactics of frustrating the England batsmen may have appeared negative, but they proved successful as Collingwood, in chasing a wide, full delivery from Siddle, skewed a drive to gully, where Mike Hussey held a sharp chance to his left.
Trott, who needed 12 balls to get off the mark, saw Bell perish to his first ball after tea, bowled via an inside edge as he too paid the price for playing away from his pad.
Prior never hinted at permanence before he fell for 18 to Johnson’s well-disguised slower ball, failing to check his drive and finding a leaping Shane Watson at point.
The fairytale innings that Flintoff, and the rest of the population, hankered for did not materialise - he was caught behind swishing inelegantly at Johnson - and Trott’s largely assured contribution, which featured plentiful clips of his pads and a handful of punchy drives, ended in unfortunate fashion.
He advanced down the track aiming to whip part-time off-spinner Marcus North through midwicket, but Katich showed magnificent reactions and great awareness to collect the ball on the bounce and hit the stumps to beat Trott’s dive.
Broad and Swann combined careful defence with rare moments of aggression, carrying England beyond 300 before Siddle, armed with the new ball, located Swann’s edge to leave players and spectators alike wondering where the balance of power lay.