Alastair Cook fell five agonising runs short of a long-overdue Test century, but still put his team in a highly advantageous position against India at the Ageas Bowl.
England's most prolific centurion had luck on his side in the third Investec Test, and appeared set to make it count by taking his career tally to 26 hundreds - 14 months and 28 innings after his 25th.
He answered his many critics with a fine hand at the top of the order, but sadly the century was not to be as Ravindra Jadeja - the man who dropped Cook on 15 - eventually got him caught-behind down the leg-side from a bottom-edged pull 80 runs later.
Cook followed his and Sam Robson's first half-century opening stand together, at the eighth attempt, by adding another 158 with Gary Ballance (86no) as England reached the dominance of 213 for two.
His personal reward was within touching distance after almost five hours at the crease only for him to fall midway through the evening session, to the 231st ball he faced.
The England captain, under intense pressure as his team try to arrest a run of seven defeats in nine matches, might easily have gone much more cheaply after winning the toss on a bright but cloudy morning.
He survived when he poked out at a Pankaj Singh delivery from round the wicket and should have become the debutant's maiden Test victim only for Jadeja to put down a straightforward chance at third slip.
Cook often appeared tentative, edging the first ball of the match from Bhuvneshwar Kumar short of second slip and also beaten on the outside edge by Mohammed Shami before his scare against first-change Pankaj.
He nonetheless went past first Kevin Pietersen and then, after lunch, David Gower to move up to third in England's list of all-time Test runscorers.
Robson was the more convincing opener, with cover-driven fours off Kumar and then Shami, until the latter saw him off with a touch of extra bounce - Jadeja safe this time with the mirror-image chance at third slip.
Cook gradually grew in confidence on the way to his highest score since he made 130 against New Zealand at Headingley early last summer.
On a pitch with pace and carry, England were doubtless relieved there was no threat from Ishant Sharma - the tall seamer who helped to put India 1-0 up at Lord's six days ago but is injured here.
Without him, India needed Kumar and Shami to be at their best - and although the two canny seamers regularly beat the bat, they found precious few edges.
Cook passed his first half-century since the Melbourne Test last Christmas, when he pulled Shami for two soon after lunch, and Ballance established a similar tempo on the way to his fifth score of 50 or more in only 10 Test innings to date.