By David Brett
MELBOURNE, Dec 26 (Reuters) - Under-pressure England batsman Kevin Pietersen stood tall on the opening day of the fourth Ashes test against Australia on Thursday even as his team mates crumbled around him.
Normally ebullient at the crease, Pietersen showed rare circumspection as he rode his luck to an unbeaten 67 to anchor his team to 226 for six at the close in front of a world record test crowd of 91,092 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
Given a life on six when substitute fielder Nathan Coulter-Nile carried a catch over the boundary, Pietersen enjoyed more luck when he was dropped on 41 by George Bailey.
If England are to have any chance of posting a 300-plus first innings total for the first time this series, they will need their best batsman to stay out the rest of the innings.
"The positive is that we've got Kev (Pietersen) there tomorrow morning and if he has a good couple of hours then things can change very quickly," England's Ian Bell said.
"Hopefully tomorrow with Kev there we can get ourselves past 300 and try to put a bit of pressure on Australia."
That Pietersen managed to hang on for so long was a credit to the South Africa-born batsman, who had been slammed by British media and labelled a "mug" by former England batsman Geoff Boycott for throwing away his wicket in the series.
Pietersen's response was to surpass Boycott's 8,114 runs to become England's fourth highest run-scorer in tests.
It was not a vintage Pietersen knock but it was effective.
Batting at a strike rate of just over 44 runs, well below his career strike rate of 62, he struck four fours and one six for his 67 off 152 balls.
England will need more of the same on Friday if England's tail is to avoid being blown away cheaply again.
Eleven of Mitchell Johnson's 25 wickets in the series have been the numbers eight-to-eleven batsmen at a cost of 3.88 runs per wicket.
England's habit of scoring slowly and losing wickets consistently at vital times have handed Australia the early advantage after the first day.
It may have been the Boxing Day test match but it was more like Groundhog Day for England, whose batsmen struggled against Australia's miserly bowling attack.
The record crowd were made to endure the tourists scoring at 2.5 runs per over, almost equalling the pedestrian rate of 2.4 in their mauling at Brisbane, and still well below the Australians' series average of 3.7.
Even with heavy overcast early morning conditions, Michael Clarke's decision to invite England to bat first on a flat MCG pitch looked a risk and the Australian captain admitted much himself.
"I can't believe I'm doing this but we're going to have a bowl," he told the crowd at the toss.
No doubt he was emboldened by the merciless performances of his scrooge-like bowling attack so far in this series.
The Australian bowlers continue to squeeze the life out of England's batsmen. Their economy rates - runs conceded per over - have fallen by an average of 14 percent among their four main strike bowlers.
They have bowled a combined 131 maiden overs in the series so far, compared to 56 for England's main strike bowlers.
"Our goal was to bowl lots of dots and we did that and got some wickets from it," Australia's Ryan Harris said.
"We know if we bowl like we did today ... they are not going to score many runs coz we're putting so much pressure on them." (Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)