Their hopes of avoiding a series whitewash were in jeopardy as they faltered from eight for one to 23 for five after an hour's play on a glorious morning, in reply to Australia's 326 all out.
Ryan Harris made the most of conventional new-ball swing to see off Alastair Cook almost immediately, very nearly Ian Bell next ball, and then Kevin Pietersen for good measure.
Cook fell to the second delivery the morning, a stock inswinger which he misread and left alone to be lbw.
It was a basic misjudgment, and one which perhaps summed up England's frazzled state here.
Bell ought to have followed his captain straight back.
He edged a perfectly pitched Harris outswinger to slip, where Shane Watson put down a regulation catch which would have condemned Bell to a second golden duck in successive innings.
Nightwatchman James Anderson tried to grit it out against Mitchell Johnson, and took a painful blow to each hand for his trouble before guiding a catch to Michael Clarke at second slip.
Pietersen then never convinced before aiming an ambitious drive at another Harris outswinger, only to edge to a safe Watson this time.
Debutant Gary Ballance opened his Test account with a drive through vacant mid-off for three off Harris, though - and after more than 40 minutes and 20 balls stuck on nought, Bell also got under way in the same over with two runs into the leg side.
If that amounted to partial respite, it did not last.
Peter Siddle replaced Johnson at the Randwick End, and Bell edged him behind to become the fifth batsman to go without threatening double-figures.