Lacklustre bowling succeeds against muddle-headed batting
It was a day on which England missed a trick, Australia got out of jail and The Oval pitch befuddled all. In this most unpredictable of series, Australia's bowlers battled as much with themselves as they did the opposing batsmen, conceding boundaries (40) and extras (36, including 17 no-balls) with reckless abandon yet, somehow, almost managed to terminate England's first innings in a day.
Ricky Ponting will be quietly satisfied to have arrived at stumps with England stationed on 307 for 8. Mitchell Johnson, Ben Hilfenhaus and Stuart Clark all struggled at various junctures for accuracy, penetration and footing, and if not for a succession of muddle-headed strokes from the hosts, Australia might well have faced a more treacherous path over the coming four days.
At least six England batsmen were left to rue the circumstances surrounding their dismissals, having again failed to convert solid starts into dominant innings. Not for the first time this series, loose strokes outside off-stump proved the downfall of many, eroding much of the foundation work laid by Andrew Strauss and Ian Bell in the first session.
Precious little went right for the Australians on Thursday morning, beginning with the coin toss. Ponting called incorrectly for the fourth time this series, allowing England first opportunity to bat on a surface that proved far flatter than most had anticipated. The predicted pace and bounce lasted only as long as the lacquer on the Duke, and Australia may live to regret the decision to omit Nathan Hauritz in preference of an all-pace attack. Footmarks and clouds of dust were noticeable well inside the first session of play and Marcus North, a part-timer who had bowled just 13.3 overs in the series prior to the Thursday, immediately found sharp turn when introduced into the attack after lunch.
England appeared well positioned for a final, glorious assault on the urn when Strauss and Bell headed to lunch with 108 runs on the board and only Alastair Cook back in the pavilion. Hilfenhaus, the rock of Australia's attack entering the fifth Test, was guilty of straying both sides of the wicket in his first spell, but of more concern was the return of Johnson's directional issues.
Certainly, this wasn't the Johnson of Lord's, but neither was it the Johnson of Johannesburg. Eight no-balls and three wides indicated a general lack of rhythm, although his setting-up of the dangerous Matt Prior from around-the-wicket and wide on the crease was a worthy effort. Johnson rattled Prior with a shorter delivery, then coaxed him into a rash stroke to a wider, slower offering that flew to Shane Watson in the gully. His earlier bumper barrage to Bell was similarly entertaining, but for the most part, Johnson's 15 overs were notable for their errant lines and five-an-over scoring rates.
Clark, too, struggled for impact, although he did succeed in drying up England's scoring. Bowing a fuller line than his standard top-of-off-stump approach, Clark beat the bat infrequently and appeared down on pace, albeit on a pitch that hardly suited him. Still, with three of Australia's four pacemen shy of peak form, and The Oval pitch flattening by the hour, all seemed in place for a day of English dominance.
But, as has so often been the case in this series, conventional wisdom was not applicable. Careless batting, an indefatigable Peter Siddle, and the magnificent run-out executed by Simon Katich at short-leg steadily whittled away England's advantage over the course of the afternoon. Siddle was an early beneficiary of several of the aforementioned loose strokes, but also produced one of the deliveries of the day - brisk, full and angling - to remove the in-form Bell. His dismissal set-up a final session in which Australia claimed 5-127, and removed their head from what appeared an ever-tightening noose at the lunch break.
Undoubtedly the highlight of the day was Katich's run-out of Trott - a manouvre that required the fast-twitch muscle fibres of Usain Bolt, and the precision of Phil "The Power" Taylor. By that stage, England were acutely aware that the day was slipping from their grasp, and only a dogged eighth-wicket stand from Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann restored parity to proceedings.
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo