After choosing to bat first, Michael Clarke's men were 5-273 at stumps on Thursday's first day of play in front of a sell-out crowd of almost 34,000.
The home side had been cruising at 1-155 on a good batting track which offered little for the England quicks and some turn for the spinners.
Chris Rogers (72), Shane Watson (51) and George Bailey (53) all got themselves out with dubious shot selection after appearing set for hefty totals.
Clarke was unbeaten on 48 at stumps with Brad Haddin not out on seven.
Haddin was fortunate to survive after England's Michael Carberry dropped a simple chance at backward point off the bowling of spinner Monty Panesar in the third-last over of the day.
Bailey had reached his maiden half-century with a magnificent pull shot for six off Stuart Broad's bowling.
The second-gamer added only one run to his score before Broad took his revenge as Bailey's pull shot was snapped up by Graeme Swann at square leg.
Broad (2-63) was happy to give Bailey a verbal send-off but the tourists could have been in an even better position had Panesar and Joe Root held catches to dismiss Bailey and Clarke before they reached 20.
Bailey and Clarke added 83 for the fifth wicket.
Question marks over Steve Smith's technique will linger after the No.5 was bowled by Panesar for six on the last ball before tea as Australia slumped to 4-174.
Rogers and Watson both fell with the score on 155 in consecutive overs, ending a 121-run stand for the second wicket.
While Rogers has eased pressure on his spot after a poor first Test last month in Brisbane, a half-century for Watson won't win much praise for the allrounder. His 21st 50 sits awkwardly with just three centuries in a poor conversion rate in 48 Tests.
Opener David Warner also looked good for his 29 before he was caught at point.
AUSTRALIA FIRST INNINGS
C ROGERS c Prior b Swann 72 (167)
D WARNER c Carberry b Broad 29 (32)
S WATSON c & b Anderson 51 (119)
M CLARKE not out 48 (99)
S SMITH b Panesar 6 (17)
G BAILEY c Swann b Broad 53 (93)
B HADDIN not out 7 (21)
Sundries (5b 2nb) 7
Five wickets for 273
Fall: 34 (Warner), 155 (Watson), 155 (Rogers), 174 (Smith), 257 (Bailey).
Bowling: J Anderson 21-9-56-1 (1nb), S Broad 19-3-63-2, G Swann 19-2-55-1, M Panesar 24-4-68-1, B Stokes 8-2-26-0 (1nb).
Batting time: 363 mins. Overs: 91.
Umpires: Marais Erasmus (RSA), Kumar Dharmasena (SRL).