England fail to summon steel for final showdown

England 307-8 v Australia

England did not exactly lie on the troubled journey from Leeds to The Oval. But when they indicated that this time they would take the fight to Australia until every sinew of their body was strained, every last ounce of sweat was drained out of them and there was simply nothing left to give it became clear yesterday that they were being economical with the truth.

Many things were adequate about their performance on the crucial opening day of the fifth npower Test but that was about as far as it went. At few points did England look like a side who would do anything short of selling their grandmothers to recapture the Ashes.

For the fifth match in succession too many of their batsmen were dismissed limply, their discipline found wanting against bowling that was well-drilled but often less potent than low alcohol lager. Indeed of the eight wickets to fall, all came with some element of batting culpability attached. Peter Siddle took four wickets for Australia, bristling, as he has done all summer, like a parched dingo.

None of which means that the match and the contest are all done. Far from it. The par score on the surface came down as the day wore on and kept coming down. Some balls were going through the top, rough was being created of the sort that cabbages might thrive in, the ball was turning and it seems certain that there will be victory for one side or the other.

Whether the 307 for 8 that England had reached by the close was sufficient even in those circumstances is doubtful. Throughout the series Australia's batsmen have batted with considerably greater sense and competence than their opponents. They have put a high price on their wickets from one to seven and if they can continue to execute that policy the prize will be theirs by Monday and perhaps sooner.

England's top scorer was Ian Bell with 71 but the fact that he has now reached 50 against Australia eight times and has yet to go on to a hundred is a statistic that says much about the man and the opposition. Bell was out to his first ball after tea, failing to move his feet and pushing at a ball outside off stump which bowled him off an inside edge. It happens, but to Bell, England's most gifted player in terms of the richness of the strokes he is capable of playing, it happens too often.

There was a palpable sense of relief when Andrew Strauss won the toss which meant England were able to bat first against an unchanged Australia side, which meant, riskily, it contained no specialist spinners. It was not quite comparable to that felt four years ago when England also felt they needed to prevent the opposition having the chance to put a large score on the board but there was not much in it.

This series has not lived up to its predecessor either in terms of drama or quality, but the ground yesterday was brimming up with enough expectation to fill the gasometer which overlooks it. And when England were offered the chance to bat under skies that suddenly became worrying unclear as 11am approached hope yet again was triumphing over experience.

Fortunately, Australia bowled before lunch as indifferently as they have all summer. They had one wicket to show for their endeavours when Alastair Cook obliged in his routine fashion by nicking a ball outside off stump to second slip. In this series, Cook has been out exclusively lbw or to edges behind the wicket, both thick and thin. It has not been a personal victory for the elimination of defects.

For two hours afterwards the ball came sweetly off England's bats. Bell was fortunate to survive for he might have gloved a bouncer from Peter Siddle before he had scored and he was worked over with profound menace by Mitchell Johnson. He looked like a man trying to dodge bullets in the dark. Survive he did somehow and it was to his credit that he also played some well-fashioned strokes.

Strauss was in genuinely good order, a man on a mission in possession of the form to carry it out, and by lunch England seemed to be prospering. Too early in the afternoon and much too soon after the completion of only their fourth century partnership in the series Strauss was out.

He edged a ball from Ben Hilfenhaus – it was actually a no-ball – that he need not have played. It was deeply disappointing but he was not to be alone. Paul Collingwood, promoted to number four where he last batted in late 2006, also against Australia, dallied awhile.

When it seemed as though his northern grit and his jutting jaw might once more gain him redemption he chased a wide one. Actually, the error was compounded because he had done likewise the ball before.

By now it was apparent that the ball was misbehaving occasionally and that Marcus North, of all people, was turning it from the potholes created, or rather excavated, by Johnson. England, however, continued to be fairly senseless in their approach.

After Bell's departure – and his critics ought not to forget that he was the top scorer – Matt Prior essayed few handsome shots but then nudged a slower one to point. Andrew Flintoff, given a hero's welcome, repaid the heartfelt reception with a carve at a wide one from Johnson, his 18th wicket of the series. Heaven help England if Johnson starts to bowl half-decently again.

Jonathan Trott, the debutant, batted with enviable composure. If it seemed a tall order to ask a man on his first appearance – and he may never play a more significant match should he play 100 Tests – to establish the platform from which victory may be sought, England were about to make it and he to fulfil it. But he was smartly run out by Simon Katich after playing a defensive shot to short leg which necessitated his leaving the crease.

As they had at Leeds, Broad and Swann played attractively and with intent before Swann was out in the day's last over. England will have to show far more guts yet if they are to get what they came for.

Turning points: How the action unfolded

10.31am First blood to England Huge cheers run round the ground as Ricky Ponting calls it wrong for the fourth time in the series and England therefore win the toss again. The suspicion is that they may be premature.

11.50am For whom the Bell toils Mitchell Johnson enters the attack for the first time and immediately peppers the hapless Bell with bouncers, the third of which is nudged perilously close to short leg. Bell looks all over the place.

12.54pm Bell rings loud Bell slashes expertly over gully to bring up England's 100 and seems to have weathered Johnson's storm.

Session: England.

1.48pm Strauss gives to charity Andrew Strauss, having declined to play ball after ball outside off, plays at one that demands to be left alone as if it was carrying as leprosy warning. He feathers a low catch behind. A big wicket.

3.38pm Hot to Trott Jonathan Trott scores his first runs in Test cricket – and, for England's sake, hopefully not his last – by clipping his 12th ball for two through midwicket.

Session: Australia.

4.05pm Tea teaser Bell, in sight of a century again against Australia, prods with static feet at his first ball after tea and is bowled off an inside edge.

5.00pm Prior not on fire The England wicketkeeper reaches for a wide one from Johnson and is caught at point by Shane Watson. Australia well on top as England let a decent start dribble away. Still, at least there's Freddie to come...

5.24pm Last post for Flintoff After a huge roar greets his arrival, Flintoff waves his bat at a wide one and is caught behind. England now 247 for 6 and in trouble on a good batting track.

Session: Australia.

Stephen Brenkley

Weather report Sunshine in the morning, becoming overcast after lunch with scattered showers for most of the afternoon. Max temp: 2C. Tomorrow: will stay mainly dry and cloudy. Max temp: 2C

TV times Sky Sports 1, HD1: 10.00-19.00. Highlights Five: 19.15-20.00

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