Nobody said it would be easy and when the waiting was finally over yesterday England discovered how tough it will be to reclaim the Ashes. Throughout an unspectacular but fascinating opening to the series, when nerves were exposed quite as much as techniques, Australia could feel the more satisfied with their day's work.
But the early exchanges appeared to confirm what most observers suspected: there is barely a fag paper between these teams and it may ultimately come down to who blinks last, probably some time at The Oval in late August. Both might have been gripped by the fear that a single hour, session or day could dictate the course of events and were desperate not to surrender territory.
England, who won the toss, finished on 336 for 7 at the close of the long-awaited first day of the npower Test, which as they say in Yorkshire and possibly in Wales, was neither nowt nor summat. But if the pitch were to take spin later in the piece it still might be very much summat. They started assertively against opponents who were clearly apprehensive, were pegged back after a single moment's brilliance, regrouped, were disturbed again and then embarked on another stage of retrenchment.
The occasion was completely splendid, a triumph of organisation, planning and possibly the determination to prove wrong those misguided enough to suggest that this match should not have been held in Cardiff. From the moment Katherine Jenkins sang "Land of My Fathers" in front of the pavilion before play started – part of an interminable round of hand shaking and anthem unfurling – all present must have known they were in for a corker. The functional building itself seemed to take on the appearance of a Palladian palace.
England shared the runs around the order, demonstrating that it is not a pitch on which batsmen could feel entirely at home, though some played significant roles in their own downfall. The crucial middle session belonged to Kevin Pietersen, uncommonly nervous to begin with, and Paul Collingwood, jaw jutting as ever, who both made half-centuries when they were needed. It was important, maybe vital that England did not lose another wicket then and the pair played vigilant, gimlet-eyed cricket.
Their fourth-wicket partnership of 138 was their sixth of more than 100 in Tests. They have scored more runs in partnership for the wicket than any other pair in English history. It looked as though they would widen the gap further as Australia seemed to be running out of ideas and although he will be happy enough with his side's position it was not an outstanding day for Australia's captain, Ricky Ponting.
Then Collingwood edged one behind and was adeptly held by Brad Haddin swooping late to his right. Five overs later, Pietersen, having been a model of probity in the afternoon when he went 25 overs between boundaries, essayed a frantic sweep shot against a ball pitching well outside off-stump.
He was reaching too far, in every sense, and could only top-edge it lamely to short leg. It might have been a defining moment, it was certainly a careless piece of cricket and England were suddenly up against it once more. In the evening Matt Prior made a dashing half-century and shared a stand of 86 from 95 balls with Andrew Flintoff. But still Australia came back and removed them both with the second new ball – Flintoff inside edging an over-adventurous drive, Prior the victim through the gate of a beautiful in-swinger – so that England were hanging on grimly at the end of the day.
There were no surprises in England's team: they picked both their spinners. Australia, however, sprang two by including their spinner, the off-break bowler Nathan Hauritz, after presumably deciding that England were not engaged in a game of double bluff, and the swing bowler Ben Hilfenhaus, which left Stuart Clark as twelfth man.
But the biggest surprise of all was that Australia were the more jittery. The pitch was slow and their bowlers had trouble with their direction which put England's openers in no trouble. It needed a spark, something to tell them that this was the Ashes and it came from Mike Hussey.
Alastair Cook, having looked the part, played a rather tame prod and Hussey pounced to his right and held a chance which in late August will still be a contender for catch of the series. It was precisely what Australia needed.
Mitchell Johnson, the much vaunted fast bowler, had spent three overs prompting speculation on what all the fuss was about. But he switched ends and was suddenly a different prospect. He dismissed Andrew Strauss with a 90mph bouncer from which England's captain tried forlornly to remove his gloves and bat. To no avail.
There followed a strange cameo from Ravi Bopara. The jangling sound to be heard around the stadium was his nerves. He seemed to have settled down and had unleashed a couple of handsome shots when he was undone by a beautiful piece of bowling from Johnson, a slower off-cutter driven haplessly to point. Now it was possible to see what the hype was about.
Yet between lunch and tea, the day belonged to England. Pietersen and Collingwood, panache and grimness, obviously enjoy batting together, ratifying the notion that opposites attract. Australia, as everybody expected, were extremely hard competitors. Ponting set some strange fields, not least to Hauritz. In seeking to protect him he was giving away the secret that he might not think too much of him.
But Hauritz it was who removed Pietersen and as England shared round the runs, so Australia divvied up the wickets. Peter Siddle went for a few but bustled all day, keeping the batsman honest, Hilfenhaus was accurate after an uncertain start and found some swing, Johnson looked as if he could play a deeply influential role in the destination of the trophy.
The number of boundaries hit by England's batsmen in Cardiff yesterday.
Clockwatch: How events unfolded on the first day in Cardiff
10.28am Andrew Strauss wins toss. It is a long, long way from holding up the terracotta urn at The Oval next month but at least England have ensured they win something this summer.
10.44am Katherine Jenkins belts out "Land of My Fathers". All the doubts about the fitness of Sophia Gardens to stage a Test match dissipate in a blaze of crimson-dressed, angelic-voiced glory.
11.35am Alastair Cook out. The only England player with Welsh connections – his mum comes from Swansea – is brilliantly caught by Mike Hussey at gully.
11.40am Ravi Bopara struck in the throat as he stands up to a bouncer from Peter Siddle.
2.01pm Nathan Hauritz enters. The Aussies' spin successor to Shane Warne bowls a long spell until tea but he is milked by England.
3.10pm Kevin Pietersen landmark. He becomes the 40th England batsman to reach 1000 runs against Australia and the fifth quickest.
3.34pm Pietersen and Collingwood put on 100 together. The fourth-wicket pair reach their sixth three-figure partnership.
4.24pm Pietersen escapes. Australia go up for lbw after a full length reverse swinging delivery which looks as though it will hit halfway up middle and leg. Umpire Billy Doctrove rejects their blandishments.
6.10pm Jimmy Anderson scores. The Lancashire left-hander, dubiously sent in as night watchman, extended his world record of Test innings without a duck with a push through the covers for two.
Swalec Stadium: Scoreboard
The Ashes – First Test
England won the toss
England First innings
*A J Strauss c Clarke b Johnson 30 87 min, 60 balls, 4 fours
A N Cook c Hussey b Hilfenhaus 10 32 min, 25 balls
R S Bopara c Hughes b Johnson 35 76 min, 52 balls, 6 fours
K P Pietersen c Katich b Hauritz 69 201 min, 141 balls, 4 fours
P D Collingwood c Haddin b Hilfenhaus 64 155 min, 145 balls, 6 fours
†M J Prior b Siddle 56 102 min, 62 balls, 6 fours
A Flintoff b Siddle 37 68 min, 51 balls, 6 fours
J M Anderson not out 2 18 min, 12 balls
S C J Broad not out 4 8 min, 3 balls, 1 four
Extras (b 9, lb 7, w 2, nb 11) 29
Total (for 7, 377 min, 90 overs) 336
Fall: 1-21 (Cook) 2-67 (Strauss) 3-90 (Bopara) 4-228 (Collingwood) 5-241 (Pietersen) 6-327 (Flintoff) 7-329 (Prior).
To bat: G P Swann, M S Panesar.
Bowling: Johnson 18-2-68-2 (3-0-10-0 3-0-12-1 3-1-15-1 4-1-8-0 2-0-10-0 2-0-11-0 1-0-2-0), Hilfenhaus 23-5-61-2 (nb4,w1) (7-3-10-1 5-0-17-0 7-2-16-1 4-0-18-0), Siddle 23-3-93-2 (nb5,w1) (8-0-38-0 5-2-11-0 7-0-28-0 3-1-16-2), Hauritz 19-1-67-1 (nb2) (14-1-41-0 5-0-26-1), Clarke 5-0-20-0, Katich 2-0-11-0 (one spell each).
Progress: First day: 50 in 73 min, 17 overs. Lunch 97-3 (Pietersen 6, Collingwood 5) 27 overs. 100 in 122 min, 27.2 overs. 150 in 196 min, 46.4 overs. Tea 194-3 (Pietersen 52, Collingwood 50) 59 overs. 200 in 243 min, 60.3 overs. 250 in 302 min, 73.2 overs. New ball taken after 80 overs at 288-5. 300 in 340 min, 82.2 overs.
Pietersen 50: 142 min, 95 balls, 3 fours. Collingwood 50: 125 min, 125 balls, 4 fours.
Prior 50: 85 min, 54 balls, 5 fours.
Australia: P J Hughes, S M Katich, *R T Ponting, M E K Hussey, M J Clarke, M J North, †B J Haddin, M G Johnson, N M Hauritz, P M Siddle, B W Hilfenhaus.
Umpires: Aleem Dar (Pak) and B R Doctrove (WI)
TV replay umpire: R A Kettleborough
Match referee: J J Crowe
Reserve umpire: RK Illingworth