Honours even in see-saw battle
England 336 for 7 (Pietersen 69, Collingwood 64, Prior 56) v Australia
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details
There was little to choose between these two teams in the lead-up to this eagerly anticipated Ashes series and hardly anything to split them at the end of an engrossing opening day at Cardiff. England were twice pulling away from Australia, but a hard-working attack grabbed wickets at crucial times. Kevin Pietersen gave his innings away for 69 and Peter Siddle took a vital brace with the second new ball, after Matt Prior and Andrew Flintoff had launched a stirring sixth-wicket partnership, as the hosts ended on 336 for 7.
That final scoreline gives a fair reflection of the entertainment on offer. The early exchanges had the sense of two slightly uncertain sides sizing each other up, but soon the blows were being traded. It was the Australian quicks who settled first with Mitchell Johnson striking twice before lunch, however as Pietersen - who passed 1000 runs against Australia - and Paul Collingwood added 138 in 41 overs there was a window in Ricky Ponting's new world minus the great bowlers of the past.
However, the final session showed that this current Australian team will fight for everything when firstly Ben Hilfenhaus and Nathan Hauritz made their mark before Siddle's late intervention after Prior and Flintoff added 86. In 31 overs 144 runs flowed and four wickets fell during a spell of Test cricket near its best.
Most frustrating from the England batting perspective was that the top order had done the hard work. Three thirties, a fifty and two in the sixties smacked of a wasted opportunity to make a strong statement. Especially galling was Pietersen's x-rated sweep against Hauritz which looped to short leg, five runs after Michael Clarke dropped a stinging catch at short cover, and it continued the trait of him falling to spinners who are not perceived a major threat.
His departure left England on 241 for 5, yet 16 overs later the momentum was back with the home side as Flintoff revived memories of his 2005 alliance with Geraint Jones alongside England's latest wicketkeeper. It was a thrilling stand, but Siddle had kept pounding in all day and was rewarded with Flintoff's inside edge and a fine inswinger to castle Prior.
Still, the sight of Hauritz turning a couple off straight during the second session won't have gone unnoticed in the England dressing room and if the lower order can edge the total towards 400 the spinners will have something to work with. The management clearly rate the batting skills of Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann because they sent in James Anderson as a nightwatchman at No. 8.
Australia sprang something of a surprise when they named Hilfenhaus and Hauritz in their eleven ahead of Stuart Clark. Hilfenhaus justified his inclusion with the first wicket of the series when he drew Alastair Cook into a loose prod outside off and Mike Hussey held a blinding catch at gully. Andrew Strauss played compactly for 30 but got into a tangle against a sharp bouncer from Johnson and gloved in the slips, unsure whether to attack to leave the short ball.
Ravi Bopara was given a working over at No. 3 - reminding him this is a significant step up from helping himself against West Indies earlier in the summer - and was twice hit, firstly in the throat by Siddle, and later on the shoulder by Johnson. He also kept the slips interested with a few flashy drives and, although he also pulled out a few elegant shots, there was no sense of permanency. He fell to a clever piece of deception by Johnson who used the slower ball to good effect and Bopara spooned a catch to cover. Johnson, as against England Lions, didn't find much swing but showed he had more tricks up his sleeve
England lunched on an uneasy 97 for 3 but a steady afternoon of accumulation ensured Ponting had plenty to ponder as he tried to juggle his bowling options. Pietersen made a nervy start, and moved with a limp that was blamed on his calf rather than achilles, but after the interval he twice drove full out-swingers from Hilfenhaus through the covers. When Haurtiz was introduced early in the session the temptation will have been huge to dominate the under-pressure offspinner, but instead Pietersen opted for dabbed sweeps and gentle nudges during a 20-over period where there wasn't a boundary off the bat.
The shackles were cast off when Collingwood twice cut Hauritz to the cover boundary before Pietersen danced down the pitch and drove Clarke sweetly wide of mid-off. Australia came hard at the start of the final session and Collingwood edged behind where Brad Haddin took a fine catch to his right, an important moment for the keeper who had dropped two similar chances against England Lions. Then, with Pietersen set for something substantial, he went to sweep a delivery from Hauritz wide outside off to leave the innings in the balance.
England have picked Prior on the strength of his batting and he showed his class through the off side, while Flintoff looked as comfortable in the middle than at any time in recent memory. Both were helped by some overs from Hauritz and Simon Katich which meant their eye was in before the second new ball. Runs came quickly - some off the middle and some the edge - as Prior went to a 54-ball half-century, but back came Australia again. If the rest of the series can match the opening this will be a fascinating contest.
Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo