Australia gain upper hand in Ashes decider

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England spectacularly relinquished their advantage on the opening day of the must-win final Ashes Test against Australia at the Oval.

Any hopes of Andrew Flintoff penning an opening chapter of a fairytale Test finale disappeared during a procession of late-afternoon wickets.

England all-rounder Flintoff, given the warmest of receptions for his 79th and final Test, went cheaply during a slump of six for 131.

When Peter Siddle struck for the fourth time to claim the last of those, Graeme Swann caught behind to the second new ball, it signalled the close with England 307 for eight.

Requiring victory to seal a second successive home series triumph over Australia and regain the Ashes once more, England needed a sizeable score to take control of the fifth match in the npower series and manoeuvred themselves into a good position at lunch.

Captain Andrew Strauss and new number three Ian Bell both hit half-centuries but once again a failure to convert starts into three figures hamstrung England.

They capitulated from 176 for two as the Australians profited from a combination of some disciplined bowling and poor shot selection.

Recent history at the ground suggested a stalemate, a result which would suit Australia, was favourite this week.

All of the first-class matches here this summer have ended in draws and bat has totally dominated ball.

But the surface showed signs of significant deterioration throughout the day, with part-time spinner Marcus North gaining appreciable turn and the ball jagging around off the seam.

That evidence at least suggests there will be some assistance for England's bowlers when they get their chance.

However, there was no escaping that this was an opportunity wasted after Strauss won his fourth toss out of five.

Despite grey cloud hanging above them as play began in south London, the choice to bat was the sensible one and England made good of the new-ball period thanks to an outfield which provides maximum value for shots.

They had galloped along at better than four-an-over, in fact, to reach the interval on 108 for one.

It appeared the perfect platform from which to launch but a succession of uncertain prods and pokes unpicked the fine start.

Opener Alastair Cook had perished in just the sixth over, shortly before a 15-minute spell with the floodlights switched on, when he was squared up by a Siddle delivery and taken at second slip by Ricky Ponting.

But Strauss and Bell, promoted to number three in a reshuffled batting order, preserved their status until the interval.

Bell belatedly entered the series, following injury to Kevin Pietersen, needing to address a poor career return against Australia.

In 10 previous Ashes Tests he had managed just 502 runs at an average of 25.

He was also under pressure to justify the selectors' faith in him after being axed earlier this year.

He began with a half-century at Edgbaston but double failure in the heavy defeat in Leeds, allied to his failing in this corresponding fixture four years ago, put him in the spotlight.

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