Australia tried their best to make a series of it, wasting the toss by bowling and dropping Joe Root three times.
Jos Buttler looked relieved when the circumstances had deteriorated sufficiently to provoke a late thrash.
Successive sixes off Josh Hazlewood is a badge of honour of sorts, and Jack Leach is never dull viewing. But this was four days too early for comedy defiance and Buttler going full one-day mode.
Of course Australia could come out on day two and make a pig’s ear of it. Buttler might convert his second Test century. Steve Smith might forget where he is and slump to a 50. Then again, events might unfold in accordance with what has come before, leaving England again in the midden looking at another pasting.
The mistakes piled up by England’s batsmen during the first four Tests continued at The Oval, skipper Joe Root as culpable as any in attitude if not in the manner of his exit.
In defence of his realm and his captaincy Root demanded that England learn quickly, that they absorb the lessons of a largely dispiriting summer in which they have been comfortably second best.
His target is to be up and at ’em by the time the Ashes resume in Australia next winter. How about something a little more prosaic? How about winning the next match? It is unlikely to be this one despite England making the best start to a contest this series.
Australian captain Tim Paine, falling for the false promise of easy plunder under a grey lid, ignored cricket’s win-toss-bat-first convention to insert the opposition.
Only three captains have won a Test match at this ground by inverting best practice. The move was described as a monster risk by former England captain Michael Vaughan. Had he forgotten already the pattern of the series?
The first wicket fell at 27, Joe Denly edging Hazlewood to first slip. Denly could have gone earlier, nevertheless the partnership was the highest by any opening pair in this series, 15 better than the average of 11.9.
England progressed to 103-1 before Burns and Stokes self-destructed with top-edged pull shots when well set and the sun warming their backs.
One way or anothe,r fate had identified Root as the man to gather the England effort together, to guide the team to a total worthy of a cracking wicket in friendly conditions.
He passed Sir Len Hutton in the English pantheon and 7,000 Test runs to sit 12th on the all-time list and, although he posted a 50 for the 45th time in his career, the real story for a batsmen considered to be among the world’s top four, is the number in the centuries column. With only 16 from 158 knocks, and none this series, it is beginning to look less like a top four than a top three and a half.
World No 1 Steve Smith has as many tons as fifties, 26, in 122 innings. India’s Virat Kohli has 25 centuries and 22 fifties from 135 innings and, in 130 walks to the crease, New Zealand’s Kane Williams has returned 20 tons and 30 fifties. Root, with an average of 48.09, is the only one of the four to average fewer than 50.
In one rum passage either side of lunch Root hung his chin out like a pub heavyweight with a death wish, inviting the finest new ball attack in world cricket to knock him cold. They went close.
Pat Cummins, left, saw routine catches dropped in consecutive overs, as well as passing both edges of the bat, and Steve Smith then decked a sharp chance off Peter Siddle in the first over after lunch.
If Cummins wasn’t whispering “karma” to himself when Siddle dropped a dolly at fine leg when Root was on 24, he was when he bent back Root’s timbers shortly after tea with a snorter which came back sharply.
Root had harvested 57. Better than it might have been but nowhere near what England required.
Sometimes a bowler can be just too good. In Cummins’s case more often than not. Root was his 26th wicket in the series, the only bowler to pass 20 until Josh Hazlewood clipped Jofra Archer’s wings for the eighth wicket.
With the score on 226, there seemed little point in hanging about. That was Buttler’s reasoning anyway. Down went the pedal, the crowd went nuts and England added 45 at a run a minute to close on 271-8. Australia will resume with a new cherry, a night’s sleep behind them and England pretty much where they want them despite Buttler’s flourish.