HISTORY will have to be hard-earned if England are to win four home Ashes Tests for the first time after Australia dug in effectively on day one at The Oval.
Australia’s new guard of captain and vice-captain in waiting, Steve Smith (78no) and David Warner (85), were most successful as the tourists sought to put behind them the miserable performance with which they lost the urn at Trent Bridge.
There, they were bowled out for 60 in under 19 overs to put themselves in an impossible position almost from the outset.
Here, doubtless chastened by that experience, Warner and his opening partner Chris Rogers soon ensured no repeat of the Nottingham calamity in a century stand which underpinned a stumps total of 287 for three in this fifth Investec Test.
Smith then took over in another hundred partnership, unbroken with Adam Voges, as Australia negotiated awkward conditions under heavy cloud cover throughout and on a pitch with pace and occasional sideways movement.
There was to be no gratifying contribution, however, for Australia captain Michael Clarke, who will retire after this match.
He could muster only 15 runs before a faint edge behind off Ben Stokes, confirmed by a “Snicko” flicker on DRS, left him to ponder the prospect of one more innings with which to achieve a fitting farewell.
Warner had a century in his sights until he pushed forward and edged Moeen Ali to slip in mid-afternoon, bringing Clarke to the crease.
As he made his way out, he was applauded by a crowd on their feet and accorded a guard of honour by Alastair Cook’s Ashes hosts.
Clarke closed out the second session with Smith but was to get little further.
Australia were previously well-served by Warner and Rogers after Cook had unsurprisingly chosen to bowl first.
The tourists are minus the Ashes with a match to spare but were in no mood this time to chase the line of the ball and edge compliantly to slip.
After only 19 runs in the first hour, Warner in particular cashed in his initial caution with a 76-ball 50 containing six fours as Cook ran through all his bowling options in search of a breakthrough.
Stuart Broad recorded the astonishing figures of eight for 15 on his home ground two weeks ago as England took an unassailable 3-1 lead.
But he had to settle for the less eye-catching analysis of 15-3-43-0 so far here as – like his radar from round the wicket, for much of his new-ball spell – predictions of another clatter of early wickets proved wide of the mark.
Mark Wood threatened the stumps more often from the Vauxhall End but to no avail, as anticipated swing failed to materialise.
Although it took until the 15th over for Warner to pull the first boundary off Stokes, Australia were soon progressing well. It was not until Rogers edged some extra bounce from Wood to a juggling Cook at slip after lunch that England were up and running.
The impression already was that Australia were perhaps compiling a handy total, and Smith soon overcame a sketchy start to play with increasing confidence.
On four, he inside-edged Stokes for four past his stumps and was not always convincing in the early stages of his innings.
But Australia’s future captain gradually attuned himself and completed his half-century when he drove his 84th delivery, from Stokes, past cover for his sixth boundary.
He was far from done either, extending the advantage either side of a rain break and before a slightly early finish because of bad light.
He also kept himself on course for his second hundred of a summer which has otherwise been conspicuously fallow for Australian batsmen.
Despite the score, Stokes said England were very happy with the way they bowled.
The Durham all-rounder said: “The first hour we had with the new ball we were fantastic, didn’t give them many scoring opportunities.
“Obviously, we’ve only had them three down but on another day we probably could have bowled a bit worse and maybe got them five-six down.
“Australia played a lot better than they did at Trent Bridge but as a bowling group we’re very happy with how we bowled.”
Australian opener Warner again missed out on a first Ashes hundred of the summer but said: “Very good day for us, good toss to lose. We knew early on it was going to be very tough conditions for us and I think there were 19 or 20 runs scored in the first hour, so positive signs for us moving forward for tomorrow.
“The England bowlers bowled well but today was our day.”
AUSTRALIA First innings
C J L Rogers c Cook b Wood - 43
D A Warner c Lyth b M M Ali - 85
S P D Smith not out - 78
M J Clarke c Buttler b Stokes - 15
A C Voges not out - 47
Extras (b1 lb16 w1 nb1) - 19
Total (3 wkts, 79.4 overs) - 287
Fall: 1-110 2-161 3-186. Bowling: Broad 15 3 43 0; Wood 18 5 41 1; Stokes 16 5 59 1; Finn 20.4 2 78 0; M M Ali 10 1 49 1.