Ashes 2013-2014: England in trouble despite Pietersen defiance
|Fourth Test, Melbourne (day one)|
|Close: England 226-6 v Australia|
Australia tightened their grip on this one-sided Ashes series as they reduced England to 226-6 with three late wickets on the first day of the Boxing Day Test.
In front of a new world record crowd for a Test match of 91,092, England's top five batsmen all made starts but only Kevin Pietersen pushed on past 50 as Mitchell Johnson's pace and Ryan Harris's relentless precision once again proved critical.
Pietersen managed to score off just one of the first 37 balls he faced and was dropped on both seven and 41, yet he clung on to end the day 67 not out and keep alive slim English hopes of a competitive total.
Johnson finished with 2-59 and Harris 2-32 from 20 overs on a day when England were first asphyxiated by accuracy and then blown away by aggression just as they were in heavy defeat in the first three Tests.
With the second new ball still only 10 overs old, Australia will believe they can polish off the England tail rapidly on Friday morning and then prosper on a pitch containing few real terrors.
For the first time in the series England had been given the chance to bat first, albeit only at the choice of Michael Clarke after the Australian skipper had won the toss for the fourth time in four matches.
England had done the same thing three years ago and rattled Australia out for just 98, but this time Alastair Cook's men began with intent and success, racing to 48 without loss in the first hour before the struggling captain fell in tame fashion for 27.
There was little need for him to play at a wide ball from Peter Siddle, an edge to Clarke at second slip the inevitable outcome as he hung out his bat.
As the early grey clouds cleared conditions for batting improved, and Michael Carberry and a stuttering Joe Root were able to take the score on to 96 before both fell in the space of 10 runs after lunch.
Carberry left a ball from Shane Watson that shaped in sharply to be cleaned up for 38, the sixth time in nine Test innings that he has been dismissed between 30 and 43 and once again a waste of much diligence.
Root had looked jittery from the start, playing and missing several times as he got further and further back in the crease, and it was no surprise when he edged Harris behind for an 82-ball 24.
It brought Pietersen and Ian Bell together, two of the last remaining senior players in this denuded team but equally unable to break the stranglehold of the parsimonious Aussie attack.
Just 12 runs came in a spell of 12 overs, with England advancing by only 64 runs in the entire afternoon session and Pietersen going 47 minutes without a run as he dug in with uncharacteristic diligence.
If his self-control was impressive, he also had significant luck - on seven, when substitute fielder Nathan Coulter-Nile caught his mistimed pull at deep square leg only to stagger back over the boundary rope, and on 41 when George Bailey spilt a sharp chance to his left at midwicket.
Bell's two-hour defensive effort came to an end on 27 and the partnership 67 when he edged a fine ball from the endlessly accurate Harris to wicketkeeper Brad Haddin.
Johnson had been a little awry in the first two sessions, but after Pietersen went to his 35th Test half-century after three tough hours at the crease, he once again proved impossible to cope with as he took the second new ball.
He had Ben Stokes caught at slip in his first over and then made a mess of Jonny Bairstow, picked in place of the dropped Matt Prior as England also replaced the retired Graeme Swann with Monty Panesar.
Softened up by a succession of short balls from Johnson, backing away to the leg side, Bairstow had his off stump sent sprawling for a hapless 10 as the biggest stadium in Australian cricket roared its approval.
Tim Bresnan survived a similar barrage of short balls to hang on with Pietersen on one not out. But it was again unequivocally Australia's day in a series when they have so seldom been second best.