England’s stifling tactics paid rich dividends at the MCG to earn an almost guaranteed first-innings lead in the fourth Ashes Test at the MCG.
England’s seamers got their act together at last, for the first time since day one of a series already lost, to reduce their hosts to 164 for nine in reply to 255 all out.
It was an admirable effort, if belated after the urn was conceded in Perth before Christmas, from an attack led by James Anderson (three for 50) and Stuart Broad (three for 30) to gain the advantage after Mitchell Johnson (five for 63) had been on the rampage again for Australia.
The left-armer reprised his demon-bowler role to take his wickets tally for the campaign to 28 as England subsided from 226 for six in less than an hour on an initially gloomy second morning here.
But England ended the first session with two wickets already - and despite almost four hours of stoic resistance from opener Chris Rogers (61) and the standard defiance of Brad Haddin at number seven, they kept eking out wickets.
The tourists received plenty of criticism on day one for failing to impose themselves with the bat against disciplined bowling.
Yet when they got their turn with the ball, they demonstrated they too had the skills and accuracy after all to dictate the rhythm of the match.
Rogers nonetheless deserved particular credit for his resilience after being hit on the helmet by a Broad bouncer and needing attention for a cut to his cheekbone when he was on 16.
Under brightening skies for the start of Australia’s innings, Rogers soon lost opening partner David Warner - whose skittish stay ended when a mistimed flick to leg off Anderson skied an edge almost perpendicular in the crease to wicketkeeper Jonny Bairstow.
Shane Watson appeared slightly discomforted by the groin injury he had suffered bowling, and he fell to a stiff drive and inside-edge behind off Ben Stokes.
Michael Clarke went shortly lunch, losing his off bail when he left alone a delivery from Anderson which jagged in off the pitch.
Anderson almost pulled off a brilliant catch to then get rid of Steve Smith too, but instead the batsman saw the ball pop from the fielder’s grasp after he dived full length to his right to get a hand on a fierce pull at Tim Bresnan.
Rogers carried on regardless, albeit with little fluency, and just managed to reach his 50 before tea.
It was in the next hour, however, that England bowled especially well - and got their rewards.
Instinctive shot-maker Smith had spent 77 balls over 19 runs when he went after Broad on the back foot but could only edge head-high to Ian Bell at second slip.
Rogers’ vigil then ended with a faulty drive at the nagging Bresnan to Kevin Pietersen, running round from mid off, and George Bailey went for a 19-ball duck to Anderson when - as, controversially, with Joe Root in the last Test - ‘snickometer’ evidence was enough to see him off caught-behind on DRS, after an initial not-out verdict.
Anderson dropped Johnson at cover off Bresnan on two, only to catch him without addition in mirror image off the same bowler at midwicket.
In between, Haddin benefited from DRS to overturn another on-field decision by Aleem Dar - this time for lbw on 35 - but Broad returned to have Ryan Harris caught at short-leg and then Peter Siddle caught at cover with the last ball before stumps.
Johnson had earlier run through England yet again, thanks partly to some conspicuous compliance from Pietersen (71) on this occasion.
The left-armer saw off both England’s overnight batsmen, Bresnan and Pietersen, in his first over as he continued a spell from the previous evening which would eventually read 9-3-18-5.
He got one in the perfect place to Bresnan, unable to fend a short delivery to ground and easily caught at short-leg.
Pietersen responded to the dismissal of the often reliable number eight with a failed attempt to counter-attack against Johnson.
The ambition and method appeared unrealistic, and ended with an astounding mow across the line which resulted in the loss of leg-stump.
After Pietersen’s hard graft on day one, it was a bizarre change of tack - even with the tail exposed and few remaining candidates to bat with him - and it left England with minimal remaining resources to prolong their innings.
DAY 1: Thursday, Decemeber 26:
Kevin Pietersen dug in admirably to try to stop Australia taking control yet again on a hard-fought first day at the MCG.
In front of a world-record 90,000-plus crowd, breaking a 52-year-old previous best at this same cavernous ground, England set aside any aspirations of thrills and spills in search of a vital foothold in the fourth Ashes Test.
The urn is gone already, of course, but damage limitation - specifically avoiding a series whitewash - will be no mean feat from 3-0 down for Alastair Cook’s tourists.
After losing the toss, there was no hiding place as Australia set out to expose more English weaknesses under cloud cover on a pitch tinged with green.
It did not misbehave noticeably, however, and Pietersen (67no) did just enough - despite two late wickets with the second new ball for Mitchell Johnson - to keep England marginally competitive on 226 for six.
He had fortune on his side in a hard-earned three-hour half-century, mishooking on seven off the again-impressive and miserly Ryan Harris only for the ball to be carried over the boundary for six by substitute fielder Nathan Coulter-Nile.
Then on 41, Harris almost had him once more but this time saw a diving George Bailey unable to hold on to a pull at mid-wicket.
Pietersen’s 119-ball 50 contained some characteristic drama, for good measure, as he took unscheduled time out mid-over after being dropped by Bailey - for an ailment which was unclear, with some suggesting he had swallowed a fly.
England needed Pietersen to fire, for the first time in the series, having lost Cook during a gloomy morning - and then, as the skies cleared after lunch, Michael Carberry and Joe Root were also unable to make a substantial contribution.
The scoring rate was stilted for long periods, as a disciplined four-man seam attack - including all-rounder Shane Watson, until he limped out mid-over with an apparent recurrence of hamstring issues - gave the batsmen precious little.
After England’s unequal struggles in the first three Tests, it seemed Cook began by trying to set a more adventurous tone, making the most of some loose deliveries in Johnson’s two-over burst with the new ball.
Peter Siddle’s first stint from the Great Southern Stand end was also short-lived, and it was hard to believe it was Michael Clarke’s Plan A to be introducing off-spinner Nathan Lyon after only nine overs.
After Cook’s quick start, Carberry claimed a near fair share of their opening stand until the captain departed to a poor shot - drawn into playing at some extra bounce at Siddle and edging to Clarke at second slip.
Two setbacks for the tourists either side of afternoon drinks were followed by a near stalemate as Pietersen and Ian Bell dug in at the start of a dogged half-century stand.
As at least twice previously in the series, a change of angle brought Carberry’s downfall.
The left-hander survived one ball from Watson, round the wicket, but was gone to the next when he judged he could leave only to lose his off bail thanks to a deviation off the pitch.
Root shrugged aside several plays and misses, but it was all to no avail when he got a thin edge behind to a teasing Harris outswinger with the first ball of a new spell.
Bell and Pietersen then chose survival over counter-attack, the latter’s cross-bat smash over mid-wicket for four off Siddle his only scoring shot from the first 38 balls he faced.
Bell was equally determined until he was uprooted by another outstanding delivery from Harris, nipping away off the pitch to take the outside edge for caught-behind on the back-foot defence.
When Ben Stokes then fell immediately to the second new ball, going hard in defence against Johnson but merely edging straight to slip, the door was ajar to Australia again.
Jonny Bairstow was not up to the task, having replaced the out-of-form Matt Prior here, bowled through the gate as Johnson cranked up the pace.
But with Pietersen still there at stumps, England nonetheless retained hope of better to come.