Sydney:Mitchell Johnson did his best to keep Australia alive in the final Ashes Test with a vital half-century and two key wickets on an absorbing day, but England were handily placed on 3 for 167 in reply to 280. Andrew Strauss hit a sparkling 58-ball 60 to launch England's reply following Johnson's counterattacking 53, then Alastair Cook maintained his prolific form only to lose Kevin Pietersen shortly before the close.
Strauss and Jonathan Trott fell in quick succession to leave England 2 for 99 and memories of Perth, where Johnson had sparked a dramatic England collapse, were not far away. Cook should have become Michael Beer's first Test wicket on 46, but the delivery was called no-ball after Billy Bowden asked to check the front line when Cook lofted to mid-on. However, to Beer's huge credit he remained focused on the game and was able to steady himself under Pietersen's hook shot at fine leg in what could prove a pivotal wicket.
Australia were struggling to make 200 before Johnson and Ben Hilfenhaus combined to add 76 for the ninth wicket but their momentum was eroded as Strauss raced out of the blocks against some shoddy bowling. Hilfenhaus was especially disappointing, dropping short at a friendly pace to allow Strauss free pull shots one of which cleared deep square-leg for six
Michael Clarke made an early mark as captain when he handed Johnson the new ball for the first time since the Lord's Test in 2009, but his opening spell lasted three overs, during which he was cut by both batsmen, and Strauss was motoring along at more than a run-a-ball in a perfect tone-setting display. The England captain also drove with authority, a sign his game is in top order, as Clarke began to realise the challenges of captaincy in the current Australian era.
Strauss went to fifty shortly after tea when he scythed a cut over the slips but Hilfenhaus provided relief for Australia when he went round the wicket and took off stump with one that shaped away from the left hander. That breakthrough sparked a lift in Australia's bowling and Trott fell for his first Test duck when he dragged Johnson into his stumps.
Cook had trailed in Strauss's wake during the opening partnership but oozed the confidence that over 600 runs in the series has brought him. His fifty came from 113 balls and when he'd made 59 reached 5000 for his career with the promise of plenty more to come.
Beer's first ball in Test cricket was dispatched by Pietersen, but despite the sickening disappointing of seeing a wicket denied he held himself together well. Pietersen had taken a blow on the arm early in his innings, yet was desperate to impose himself and couldn't resist taking on Johnson despite the close being four overs away which left James Anderson to survive a late bombardment.
Despite the two periods where runs flowed from Australia's tail and England's openers it wasn't easy when bowlers maintained consistency which is what the visitors did superbly for the first two hours. Brad Haddin set a poor tone for the home side in the fourth over of the day when he played a flat-footed waft outside off against Anderson, which wasn't the best way to start his stint at No.6. There was still life on offer in the pitch for the pacemen and both Mike Hussey and Steve Smith had to concentrate on defence.
After his double failure in Melbourne, Hussey was again looking solid but at no point did he get away from England as he had in Brisbane and Perth. Even taking into account bowler-friendly conditions and a sluggish outfield which kept boundaries to a minimum it was tough going by Australia. Paul Collingwood then claimed one of the biggest wickets of his Test career when a tight over to Hussey was rewarded with an inside edge into the pads and onto the stumps.
More galling for Hussey was that the strike came with the last delivery before the new ball and Collingwood was promptly removed from the attack. Smith had played against his natural instincts but couldn't resist flashing a drive at Anderson which went straight to third slip and it took just four balls to work over Peter Siddle who edged low to Strauss.
Johnson drove the ball as sweetly as anyone and Strauss was too quick to set his men back which conceded the advantage to a No. 8 in favourable bowling conditions. Hilfenhaus played his part, flicking Tim Bresnan over midwicket for six, and Johnson was happy to milk the deep-set field to give his partner the strike.
Johnson cut loose early in the afternoon as he launched Graeme Swann over midwicket for four followed by six then brought up his fifty with a nudge into the leg side which was greeted by huge roars. Bresnan broke through when Johnson missed an expansive drive and Anderson removed Hilfenhaus for his fourth wicket and 21st scalp of the series. However, those late-order runs could yet prove a vital factor in the final outcome.
The 76 run stand for the ninth wicket between Mitchell Johnson and Ben Hilfenhaus is the seventh highest at the SCG and the third highest for Australia against England in Tests at the SCG.
James Anderson picked up four wickets to take his tally in the series to 21, the highest among both teams. He is followed by Chris Tremlett and Steve Finn, who have 14 wickets each.
Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook put on 98 runs for the opening wicket, their second fifty partnership in the series. They also have two century stands in the four Tests. They have aggregated 549 runs at an average of 78.42 while the Australian openers have scored 323 runs at 35.88.
Since January 2008, Australian batsmen average 31.47 in the team first innings at the SCG, the lowest among all home grounds.