Pietersen fights but Australia on top
England 6 for 226 (Pietersen 67*, Bresnan 1*) v Australia
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details
Never in the field of Test match conflict were so few runs watched by so many. A world record crowd of 91,092 at the MCG sat with admirable patience as a tentative England nudged and scraped against Australia's unrelenting bowlers on Boxing Day.
Kevin Pietersen's unbeaten 67 epitomised the tourists' determination to improve but also their flaws. A softly, softly approach took him past Geoff Boycott on England's list of all-time run scorers but also offered up a pair of chances that conveyed the confidence lacking among Alastair Cook's men. It was not hard to escape the feeling that had the Ashes still been at stake one or both might have been taken.
This is not to say Australia's bowlers failed to replicate the pressure they have applied so successfully in the first three Tests. On the contrary, Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle and Mitchell Johnson all delivered spells of the highest quality, let down only by the slowness of the pitch and the occasional fielding lapse.
Johnson's burst with the second new ball had the enormous crowd baying as their forebears once did for Dennis Lillee. The din was rewarded with the wickets of Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow in a sequence that left England staring at an inadequate first innings despite all their stubbornness. Shane Watson's complaint of groin soreness left Michael Clarke one bowler short, but early wickets on day two would still leave him satisfied with the decision to send the tourists in to bat.
A leg bye to Harris' second ball of the morning had given England the lead in a match for the first time this series, emblematic of their struggles so far. Cook was in a quite positive frame of mind however, cutting Johnson behind point and driving him through cover to cause Clarke to call upon Siddle after only two costly overs from his left-arm slinger, then follow up with a quarter of early overs from Nathan Lyon.
At the other end Harris gained some useful movement, and Michael Carberry was squared up by a delivery that seamed away after straightening onto the line of the stumps. The resultant edge seemed destined for Clarke's hands at second slip, but Steve Smith dived eagerly across from third and deflected it from the path of his captain - a rare missed chance for Australia in this series.
Cook evaded one speculative appeal for caught behind from Harris when ball brushed pad rather than bat, but his evident desire to get bat on ball would result in his downfall. Siddle changed ends to replace Harris, and soon angled across Cook, who sparred unwisely at one he might have left and snicked it straight to Clarke.
Joe Root appeared hesitant to come forward on a pitch offering seam deviation to those bowlers who deigned to search for it, his preference to sit on the crease enhanced by a Johnson delivery that reared into his shoulder. Siddle beat Root's outside edge numerous times as the interval ticked near, but the Englishmen survived to lunch.
For all his effort, Carberry has often followed a curious batting pattern this summer, invariably starting briskly before losing momentum and eventually tenure as the bowlers tighten their grip. Almost as often the Australians have brought about his dismissal by trying a line from around the wicket. It happened again not long into the afternoon, when Watson broke one back from that angle to tip off the bails as Carberry shouldered arms.
Root's occupation was seldom anything other than uncertain, his bat groping at many deliveries moving in the air and off the seam. While Siddle had been responsible for most of these balls, it was Harris who claimed the wicket, the first projectile of a new spell sliding away after pitching and taking a thin edge through to Brad Haddin - the wicketkeeper's 50th for 2013.
The quality of Australia's bowling left England battling for survival and more or less giving up on scoring for long periods. A sequence of 12 overs reaped that many runs exactly, while Harris at one point sported figures of 14-8-15-1. After Watson's pained exit, Pietersen sought to redress the balance, swivelling to hook Harris but making contact more top-edge than middle.
The substitute fielder Nathan Coulter-Nile took the catch with a slight jump, but upon discovering how close he was to the boundary rope back-pedalled furiously and tried to hurl the ball skywards, without success. A six pushed Pietersen's score forward, while also offering him the sliver of luck he has appeared to lack for much of this tour.
Into the evening session Harris, Siddle, Lyon and Johnson did not allow England much in the way of elbow room, bowling tightly and moving the ball enough to keep the batsmen hesitant. Bell's stand with Pietersen was worth 67, most of them accrued almost by stealth, pinching runs here and there as though waiting for when the hosts were not looking.
This approach kept the bowlers in a confident frame of mind, and it was no great surprise when Harris conjured a little away seam to find Bell's edge and offer Haddin another catch. Pietersen continued to struggle on, his innings interrupted somewhat theatrically when he complained of nausea and twice called for drinks to help clear his system.
He offered a second chance, this time pulling to George Bailey at midwicket, but raised his bat wearily for 50 around the time the attendance surpassed the 90,800 who walked into this ground in 1961 on day two of the fifth Test of the 1960-61 series between Australia and the West Indies.
Stokes offered rather more dynamism, busily collecting 14, but was to fall prey to the second new ball in the hands of Johnson. He was a little too late and inside the line of a fullish delivery, resulting in an edge to Watson, now fit for slips catching if not bowling. Johnson's pace proved far too much for Matt Prior's replacement Jonny Bairstow, who was bowled between a rather large gap between bat and pad after upper cutting one skittish six over the slips.
Pietersen and Tim Bresnan scrounged their way to stumps, but a day of obstinacy had earned England only the most meagre of bridgeheads in front of a throng that might have hoped for more.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here