The hosts spooked themselves, in the shadow of the supposedly haunted Lumley Castle, going to extremes of tempos to little avail as they all got themselves in but out too on the way to 238 for nine. Australia nonetheless deserved credit for their accuracy, off-spinner Nathan Lyon (four for 42) the most successful while England stumbled from 149 for two to 197 for eight.
Only Alastair Cook (51) and Jonathan Trott, in a second-wicket stand of 73, even hinted at the intended outcome after England chose to bat first on a pitch many had predicted would help the seamers.
In the event it appeared simply slow – and with the outfield similarly inclined at the Emirates Durham ICG – England’s progress was scratchy throughout.
Trott, Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell tried to wrest the initiative but ultimately failed. Others went into their shells, Matt Prior and Jonny Bairstow reacting to Bell’s dismissal by digging in against their natural instincts in a tortuous stand of 34 in 19 overs.
The sixth-wicket pair ground to a standstill, five runs coming in ten overs, before Prior was lbw stuck on the back-foot defence to Peter Siddle.
Australia needed their second successful review to overturn Aleem Dar’s on-field verdict, as Prior was out for the ninth time in Tests to the same bowler.
Cook had fallen victim to by far the best delivery of the day, lbw playing no shot just before tea when Jackson Bird nipped one back off the angle into him.
The England captain previously appeared in no mood to take any chances, seeking not only to improve on his moderate series so far but also to convert an unassailable 2-0 lead into outright Ashes victory.
As is his wont, Michael Clarke used all-rounder Shane Watson twice before turning to frontline seamer Siddle – and the ploy worked again when Joe Root was caught-behind pushing forward.
Umpire Tony Hill did not detect an edge, but Hot Spot settled the issue for once by disproving the initial decision. When Siddle was summoned, he conceded 11 runs in his second over; yet still the lunchtime score was only 57 for one from 27.
Trott breezed past his captain in early afternoon and appeared set for a half-century from around 60 balls, only to fall one run short when he inside-edged Lyon on to his pad to a diving short-leg.
Pietersen’s pre-determination to attack the off-spinner bordered on the reckless when he went up the wicket first ball and chipped his intended big hit for an unconvincing two into the leg side.
Pietersen’s quest for domination almost cost Cook his wicket too, on 41, when he responded to a call for a single to cover from the last ball of a Watson over and would have been run-out by yards had David Warner hit the stumps.
Cook’s hard-earned 50 was completed in appropriate fashion – with a controlled edge past second slip off Bird for his fifth boundary, to add to one all-run four, from the 153rd ball he faced.
His durability was needed all the more, after Pietersen’s fast-forward innings ended in the next over – outside-edging behind as he lunged forward in defence at the returning Lyon, who profited bowling round the wicket throughout to England’s right-handers. When Cook and then Bell also departed, three wickets had fallen for six runs either side of tea.
Bell went in chastening circumstances, advancing to Lyon and well-caught by Ryan Harris at mid off – an unwelcome reminder of two occasions last winter when he undermined himself and his team in uncannily similar fashion. Set the challenge to rebuild, Prior and Bairstow began acceptably but eventually mustered just 31 runs between them from 135 balls.
Bairstow went 65 minutes between scoring shots – and then, having at last moved from 12 to 14, was out two balls later.
He missed a sweep at Lyon to be lbw, despite a review which almost saved him but instead ruled ‘umpire’s call’ thanks to a projected impact with the very top of the off bail.
Stuart Broad hacked a short ball in the air to point, and Graeme Swann picked out deep square-leg with a pull as Harris belatedly got his rewards.
England’s last two wickets nonetheless added more than 40 runs, perhaps with a little power to add tomorrow, at a venue where 267 is this season’s highest first-innings total in five county championship matches.