LONDON – Peter Siddle took four wickets as Australia moved closer towards retaining the Ashes after reducing England to 307 for eight on the first day of the deciding Test at the Oval here on Thursday.
Several England batsmen, including captain Andrew Strauss, made starts but could not go on to get the big score the team needed in a fifth Test they had to win to regain the Ashes but Australia needed only to draw to retain them, with the series level at 1-1.
Ian Bell battled hard for 72 but was unable to claim a maiden Ashes hundred in his 13th Test against Australia.
Warwickshire colleague Jonathan Trott, making his Test debut, looked good in compiling 41 before he was spectacularly run out by Simon Katich while Strauss fell for 55.
Sadly for home fans, Andrew Flintoff – in his last Test before an injury-induced retirement – barely got going before he was caught behind off left-arm quick Mitchell Johnson for seven.
Siddle, who took a trio of top-order wickets, ended play for the day when he had Graeme Swann caught behind, the fast bowler finish with figures of four for 63 in 18.3 overs.
"I think we are in a pretty good position," Siddle said. "To get eight wickets at the end of day and they are 300-odd, it’s pretty even."
Bell fell to his first ball after tea when he played on to Siddle with a large gap between bat and pad.
His innings spanned 137 balls with 10 fours in nearly four hours but his exit left England wobbling at 181 for four after Strauss, England’s only century-maker this series with 161 in their second Test win at Lord’s, had chosen to bat first on a typically good Oval pitch.
It was a marked improvement after Bell had managed just 11 runs before twice falling to Johnson in England’s innings and 80 run fourth Test defeat at Headingley which saw Australia level the series at 1-1.
But, not for the first time in his 49-Test career, the 27-year-old left England thinking of what might have been.
"We didn’t really know how the wicket would play, it was pretty dry," said Bell, whom television pictures suggested may have been bowled off a no-ball. "It was a tough day. You want to get big scores but the ball wasn’t really coming on and it made scoring hard.
"We have got runs on the board. We won’t know what a good score is until we see what Australia get."
Wicketkeeper Matt Prior briefly upped the tempo while Trott cover-drove Stuart Clark for four.
But Johnson ended a stand worth 48 when he deceived Prior into playing too early, the ball looping to Shane Watson at point.
Flintoff walked out to a standing ovation.
England’s top scorer in the drawn third Test at Edgbaston had been controversially left out at Headingley because the selectors feared his right knee problem would prevent him getting through the match.
But further batting heroics would have to wait until the second innings after a flat-footed, edged cut was caught by wicketkeeper Brad Haddin.
South Africa born Trott looked assured but, having walked forward and started to look for a single off part-time spinner Marcus North, he couldn’t beat short-leg Katich’s direct hit on the stumps.
It was a brilliantly quick piece of work and saw the end of Trott’s 81-ball innings featuring five fours.
England, who’d lost three wickets for 39 runs, were now 267 for eight.
They had advanced from 108 for one to 180 for three at tea, losing both Strauss and Paul Collingwood (24) in the second session.
Strauss exited when the left-handed opener limply hung his bat outside off-stump against Ben Hilfenhaus and edged to Haddin.
It was a tame end to an innings that saw Strauss complete an 89-ball fifty featuring 10 fours altough replays suggested he too had been dismissed off a no-ball.
His stand of 102 with Bell had taken England from 12 for one, following the early loss of Alastair Cook, to 114 for two
Strauss’s departure saw the experienced Collingwood come in at number four, one higher than his usual position. But he never settled and was caught in the gully off Siddle.