Brisbane:The Ashes contest lived up its billing of being too close to call on a fluctuating day at the Gabba.
England's bowlers staged a spirited fightback before being quelled by a resurgent Mike Hussey whose unbeaten 81 gave Australia the edge when bad light ended play.
The hosts lost four wickets during the afternoon session as James Anderson and Steven Finn produced fiery spells, but Hussey was joined by Brad Haddin and the sixth-wicket pair added 77 to leave Australia sensing a vital lead.
We'll never know what the Australia selectors would have done if Hussey had failed in the second innings of the Sheffield Shield match against Victoria last week where he struck a hundred.
His first ball today was inches short of reaching second slip but that was about his only alarm during an assured display, where his attacking approach against Graeme Swann laid down a marker for the series. Five fours and a six came against the offspinner who, along with the quicks, regularly dropped short to feed Hussey's pull.
However, England's attack showed enough to suggest they can more than hold their own in Australian conditions with Anderson the most impressive as he began correcting a poor record down under.
Not only did he claim two vital wickets, but his economy of under two meant the hosts didn't raced away. As a whole, England maintained good control when wickets weren't falling although Finn's two wickets came at a slightly high cost.
England were denied the early wickets they wanted during the morning session as Shane Watson and Simon Katich rode the occasional moment of good fortune. The first major alarm came when Katich, on 22, raced off for a single into the covers which Watson declined.
A direct hit from Alastair Cook would have had Katich well short but the throw missed while Matt Prior couldn't reach the stumps in time.
The tussle between Watson and England's quicks was engrossing. The bowlers targeted his pads and Watson responded with handsome straight drives, but he also got into a tangle against a well-directed short ball from Broad which struck him under the arm and lobbed just clear of the stumps.
England thought they'd broken through when Katich was given lbw against Anderson but the decision was overturned on referral for height, then the visitors tried their luck with a review against Watson but it was only clipping leg stump and couldn't be changed.
By now, tensions were starting to mount - especially between Anderson and Watson - but to Anderson's credit he kept his composure and his line as Watson edged a good-length delivery to first slip.
Anderson then gave the team a perfect start after lunch when Ricky Ponting glanced an edge down the leg side. With his tail up, Anderson gave Clarke a working over and was well supported by Finn who produced a fine spell having begun nervously on his Ashes debut.
Katich had reached a nuggety half-century from 103 balls but hadn't added to his score when he scooped a full delivery back towards Finn, who stooped low in his follow through to hold a fine catch for such a tall bowler.
Having made an impact, Finn then found Hussey's edge first ball but the nick fell agonisingly short of Swann at second slip.
England were convinced they had Clarke caught behind before he'd scored when Finn nipped one back to find the inside edge and they used up their final review after Aleem Dar said not out.
However, Hotspot didn't show an edge so the decision was upheld although Snicko - which can't be used as part of the UDRS - did suggest a feather from Clarke's bat.
England had a stranglehold over Australia but Hussey broke the shackles with two pulls off Finn. There was then a clear indicator for the series as Hussey took the attack to Swann - who had previously bowled two one over spells - and used his feet to on-drive a six before cutting through the covers. When Swann continued to drop uncharacteristically short he was pulled twice through midwicket.
Finn, though, returned for another spell and made an immediate impact when Clarke's painful 50-ball innings ended with a top-edge pull. Clarke had already been struck on the helmet and the glove by Stuart Broad as he refused to attack the short ball, and his first attempt at something aggressive brought his downfall.
Swann, during his poorest display since the Cardiff Test in 2009, then produced his best delivery of the innings that spun to take the edge of North's bat as he collected his latest failure which will reignite the debate of his position at No. 6.
Haddin, who is playing his first Test since March following injury, immediately looked solid at the crease and after tea began to chip away at a tiring attack while Hussey maintained his role of aggressor.
Hussey's fifty came from 85 balls and the midwicket fence continued to be his favoured location for boundaries.
England were desperate to reach the second new ball, but the moment it became available the light closed in followed shortly by rain which meant the next key stage of this match had to wait. The morning should be compulsive viewing.