For the fourth successive time on Thursday, they began an away trip by being bowled out for under 200. After folding for just 167 inside two sessions at the University Oval, they were powerless to stop New Zealand responding with 131 for none by stumps.
Jonathan Trott, who top-scored with 45 on a day when seamer Neil Wagner and debutant slow left-armer Bruce Martin shared eight wickets, said: "We put ourselves under pressure with our performance with the bat. I don't think it's a lack of effort; we made a conscious effort to start the series really well."
He added: "We looked at that and thought 'we've always been on the back foot at the start of the series' and we tried to correct that today - and we didn't get it right. You can't get away from the fact."
Trott could only scratch his head when asked why familiar failings had resurfaced, saying: "I think the guys have worked really hard in (the tour match defeat in) Queenstown, and here - and it just wasn't our day.
"We've all felt really good, and you can't fault the guys' commitment in the nets to get ready for a big series like this. We (just) didn't bat very well. I'm sure that was pretty obvious."
New Zealand could hardly have done any more so far to make a nonsense of all those predictions that England would coast to a series victory.
Wagner, South Africa-born but an adoptive son of Otago, said: "That was pretty special, playing (a Test) in front of my home crowd and as a New Zealander in New Zealand for the first time."
Among his wickets was Kevin Pietersen, for the second time in as many innings and this time for a golden duck - to his understandable delight.
"Getting Kevin's wicket was massive in the warm-up game," added the left-arm seamer. "But getting it in a Test is even better."