Dawid Malan struck England's first century of this Ashes series as the tourists saw off Australia's marauding pace attack to emerge on top of an enthralling first day of the third test at the WACA on Thursday.

The middle order batsman's unbeaten 110 anchored a flourishing 174-run stand with wicketkeeper Jonny Bairstow (75 not out), the pair pushing England to 305 for four at the close of a glorious day in Perth.

England captain Joe Root and his predecessor Alastair Cook may have failed with the bat, but the skipper won perhaps the most important contest of the day when he guessed correctly at the toss and opted to bat first.

Criticised for electing to bowl in the second test defeat in Adelaide, Root was rewarded this time with three of his batsmen passing 50.

Australia's pacemen were generally superb through much of the day and breathed fire in some telling spells before the tea interval, but the quicks were let down in the field by three dropped catches.

The last of them reprieved Malan on 92 off the first delivery with the second new ball from a frustrated Mitchell Starc late in the day.

Coaxing a thick edge from the England number five, Cameron Bancroft dived across from third slip in front of his captain Steve Smith to grass the chance.

Malan survived and raised his maiden test century in style, pulling paceman Josh Hazlewood to the fence to trigger a standing ovation from an appreciative crowd.

Bairstow, on his return to the city where he drew unwanted attention for 'head-butting' Bancroft at a local bar earlier in the tour, played a fine support role as he helped craft England's biggest partnership of the series.

With England resuming on 175-4 after tea, the pair's ability to survive for nearly two sessions will have inspired Root's team as the Ashes holders seek to claw back from a 2-0 deficit in the five-match series.

They weathered some nervy moments, with Malan slashing a lofted shot just wide of Usman Khawaja at gully to move to 74.

Bairstow, promoted to sixth in the order, all but played onto his stumps during all-rounder Mitchell Marsh's third over when on 39, but the ball skipped just over the bails after rebounding off his pads.

The wicketkeeper later played a sublime glance between slip and gully for four to bring up his 18th test half-century.

Earlier, opener Mark Stoneman scored 56 after twice being reprieved when he had just passed his half century.

He was first dropped by Mitchell Marsh in the slips when he nicked behind off Hazlewood, before a diving Nathan Lyon was unable to complete a difficult low chance at point when Stoneman fended away another short ball from the same bowler.

On the previous ball, the opener was struck on the helmet by a rising Hazlewood delivery and needed several minutes to collect himself under the attention of trainers.

Root was out softly for 20, caught down the legside by wicketkeeper Tim Paine, and Stoneman followed in controversial circumstances.

Paine leapt high to take a fine one-handed catch after Starc appeared to graze Stoneman's right glove but the caught behind appeal was turned down.

Australia reviewed and third umpire Aleem Dar overruled Marais Erasmus on the strength of a noise picked up on the 'snicko' technology.

Cook's 150th test started sourly, the 32-year-old opener lasting just 16 balls before being trapped lbw by Starc for seven.

Day one at the WACA was overshadowed by spot-fixing allegations in a British newspaper. The ICC said it took the accusations "seriously" but said there was no evidence to implicate any of the match's players or officials.