Chris Rogers and Shane Watson put on a century stand for the second wicket before both batsmen departed in the space of six balls.
Then, in the last over before tea, recalled spinner Monty Panesar bowled Steve Smith for six to leave the home side at 174 for four with skipper Michael Clarke not out nine.
Watson once again missed out on a big score after making a solid start when he was caught and bowled by Jimmy Anderson for 51.
The allrounder looked well set after 160 minutes at the crease before he chipped a return catch low down to Anderson on the bowler’s follow-through.
Watson put on 121 runs for the second wicket with Rogers. It was his 21st Test half-century but highlighted his poor conversion rate with just three centuries under his belt.
Rogers followed five balls later, attempting to hit the spinner Graeme Swann through the covers only to be caught behind by Matt Prior for 72 off 167 balls with 11 fours.
It was the seventh time Swann has dismissed left-hander Rogers in Tests, but it was a big improvement for the opener after low scores in the first Test in Brisbane.
Rogers survived a referral for leg before wicket off Panesar when he was on 27, but neither he nor Watson offered many chances before England’s quickfire breakthrough.
Panesar speared one through Smith’s defences just before tea to complete a great middle session for the tourists.
Stuart Broad made an early breakthrough for England, removing dangerous opener David Warner before lunch.
Warner, who scored a century in Australia’s huge 381-run win in the series opener in Brisbane, set off at a cracking pace with 29 off 32 balls before he went after a wide Broad delivery and was caught by Michael Carberry at point, leaving the home side 34-1.
England made two changes to their side following the departure of batsman Jonathan Trott with a stress-related illness.
Joe Root was elevated to Trott’s spot at first wicket down and England gave Durham allrounder Ben Stokes his first Test cap, presented to him by former captain Andrew Strauss before play.
Panesar was included in a twin-spin attack with Swann on a dry pitch expected to take turn later in the match.
Australia named an unchanged side, with James Faulkner again the 12th man.