Andrew Strauss hit a composed 123 but England squandered a solid start and allowed India to claw its way back with four wickets in the last session on the opening day of the first Test in Chennai on Thursday.
Strauss, who was not part of the one-day squad, notched his 13th Test century but his sheet-anchor role was somewhat neutralised as the visitors were reduced to 229 for 5 by close of play.
Electing to bat, Strauss and opening partner Alastair Cook (52) provided a solid launch pad with a 118-run partnership, but cheap dismissals of Ian Bell (17), Kevin Pietersen (4) and Paul Collingwood (9) helped the hosts tilt the balance slightly in their favour on a placid track at the M A Chidambaran stadium.
Andrew Flintoff (18) and night-watchman James Anderson (2) were unbeaten at stumps.
The stadium wore a deserted look as few spectators turned up to watch the opening day's proceedings of the match, being staged just a fortnight after the terror strikes in Mumbai.
The English team left India on November 28 after abandoning the last two matches in the seven-match One-Day International series in the wake of the attacks but returned to the country for the two-Test series after the authorities gave them assurances of water-tight security.
The teams wore black armbands and observed a minute's silence for the victims before play began.
The Test is England's 50th on Indian soil. They are the first visiting side to attain the landmark.
England handed off-break bowler Graeme Swann his Test debut. He will team up with left-arm spinner Monty Panesar.
India recalled in-form Yuvraj Singh, who scored back-to-back hundreds in the one-day series, to take the middle-order slot left vacant by the retirement of Sourav Ganguly.
Opener Gautam Gambhir was also back in the team after missing the final Test against Australia last month due to a one-match ban.
The visitors were cruising comfortably at 164 for 1 at one stage but suddenly lost the plot and were left gasping after losing four wickets in the span of 57 runs.
The dismissal of Strauss late in the day came as a big blow. England now have only two more recognised batsmen in Flintoff and Matt Prior to augment the total.
Anderson, who was sent in as night-watchman, played out a few anxious overs and ensured that England did not lose another wicket before stumps.
Earlier, openers Cook and Strauss adapted well to the slow track, which offered little for the fast bowlers in the morning session. The duo, who went for lunch at 63 without being separated, made their intentions clear by not taking any risks and rarely stepped out to new ball bowlers Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma.
Zaheer and Ishant could not extract any swing and movement in the air on the placid track even as the openers found it hard to score runs. Even the spinners Harbhajan Singh and Amit Sharma hardly got any assistance from the Chepauk pitch.
Strauss and Cook, however, stepped up the scoring in the latter half of morning session but they took 88 minutes and 19 overs to get to their 50 partnership.
Harbhajan provided the breakthrough midway through the post-lunch session, getting the scalp of Cook much to the delight of his teammates.
Cook came up with a determined display before losing his composure to a tossed up delivery from Harbhajan Singh that he played into Zaheer's hands at mid-on two overs before the drinks break. He faced 116 balls for his 15th Test fifty and was at the crease for 157 minutes. Before his departure, however, he added 118 runs off 40 overs with Strauss.
Strauss did not allow the fall of Cook's wicket to distract his focus and with Bell kept the scoreboard ticking, often deploying the sweep shot against the spinners.
Barring a couple of bat-pad appeals, which were turned down by umpire Daryl Harper, the proceedings were bereft of any action in the second half of the post-lunch session as England hoisted 150 in 51.4 overs, with Strauss moving into the 90s.
The complexion of the game changed in the last session as Zaheer and Ishant were able to get reverse swing going. The Indians claimed four wickets for 65 runs in the session.
The pitch also started to assist the spinners, which means India will have to ensure that the visitors do not get a big first innings total.
The dismissal of Bell, trapped leg before wicket by Zaheer, triggered off the slide. The Indian left-arm pacer then scalped the prized wicket of captain Pietersen with a short-pitched delivery. Pietersen attempted to hook Zaheer's bouncer but mistimed the shot completely and the bowler made no mistake with the return catch.
Paul Collingwood fell victim to a dubious decision by umpire Billy Bowden, as television replays suggested that the bat was nowhere near the ball as Gautam Gambhir took the catch off Harbhajan Singh.
Leg spinner Amit Mishra then did his bit for the team, getting rid of the well-settled Strauss late in the day.