England v SA, 1st Investec Test, The Oval, 4th day July 22, 2012

England No. 1 status hanging by a thread

After another chastening day, the alarm bells that sounded for England in the UAE are now roaring in their ears as their fallibility on slow, low pitches becomes evident again

It was surely after watching his team suffer a day the like of which England endured on the fourth day at The Oval that inspired Edvard Munch to paint The Scream. England were humiliated. Had this been a boxing contest the referee would have stopped it; had it been horse racing the jockey would have pulled-up their mount; had it been swimming, England would have drowned. Had Graham Gooch, England's batting coach, simply muttered "The horror; the horror" when he was brought out to speak to the press at the close of play, he could not have summed up his side's position more aptly.

Perhaps we should hold fire on the judgements. England could, after all, produce a Dunkirk moment akin to Cardiff in 2009 on the final day. And, even if they lose, it should be remembered that they suffered crushing defeats at Leeds in 2009 and Perth in 2010-11, but still went on to win both series. The last day certainly presents a wonderful opportunity for Ravi Bopara to secure his place in the Test team, though there is some irony in the fact that, in the wettest summer on record, England go into the final day with a vain hope for rain.

But the suspicion remains that South Africa represent far stronger opposition than England have encountered at home for some time. An alarm that sounded when England were thrashed by Pakistan in the UAE is now roaring. An inconvenient truth is emerging that suggests there are some flaws in this England side that have been papered over by success against weak sides in conditions that suit. Most pertinently, they appear to have few weapons on slow, low pitches offering their bowlers little obvious assistance.

This was a chastening day for England. Another chastening day. Even if they secure a draw, it should not obscure the deficiencies of this performance. Their much-vaunted bowling attack was rendered innocuous - there were times during the partnership with Jacques Kallis and Hashim Amla when it appeared England were trying to down an elephant with a pop-gun - while a pitch that had looked run-soaked when they bowled was suddenly transformed into a turning, seaming monster when they batted. They have been, so far, comprehensively outplayed.

It was not that England's bowling was awful. They put the ball, more or less, in the right place and even by the end still conceded under 3.5 an over. They looked tight, disciplined and respectable. But any county seamer worth his salt would do the same and, by contrast with the South African attack, England's bowling looked anaemic and ineffectual. Perhaps most importantly, they lacked the pace - all three of England's seamers appear to have lost a yard of pace in recent times - to extract anything from a begrudging surface. There are times when Test players have to show the ability to shape games; to alter its course through their skill or cunning. But England's bowlers failed to do that and instead allowed themselves to be carried on the current of the match.

The seeds of England's demise in this game might actually have been sown in their first innings when several batsmen made good starts but failed to go on and accumulate a match-defining position.

While South Africa have managed to coax swing, seam and spin from this surface, England found nothing. James Anderson, who has deservedly earned a reputation as one of the finest swing and seam bowlers in the world, hardly persuaded one to move, while Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander nipped the ball around enough to account for a wicket apiece. And while Morne Morkel showed the benefit of thumping the ball into the surface and looking for some seam movement, Stuart Broad was transformed into a meek medium pacer unable to replicate Morkel's bounce, pace or movement. Even Graeme Swann, for so long the bedrock of England's attack, looked less dangerous than Imran Tahir. Tim Bresnan may require a match-saving contribution with the bat to save his own position in the team.

South Africa's bowlers had one huge advantage over their England counterparts: they were bowling to England rather than to Amla and Kallis. While weariness and scoreboard pressure no doubt played a part in England's poor start to their second innings, the hosts would also accept that there were guilty of some soft dismissals. While South Africa's batsmen played straight and remained compact, England's either missed straight ones - as was the case with Kevin Pietersen - or followed ones that left them - such as Jonathan Trott. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that England have been outplayed in the basics of the game.

"We're not winning the Test, are we?" Gooch said with beautiful understatement afterwards. "But the game is not over yet. We have to believe we can still get out of this game with a draw and if we do it will be a great performance. We have to break it down into small bits and try and win every ball. It's not a bad wicket; you can get runs on it and we've had big partnerships to save games before."

While Gooch accepted that England's bowlers had seemed impotent, he also suggested that the seeds of England's demise in this game might actually have been sown in their first innings when several batsmen - notably Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen - made good starts but failed to show the ruthlessness required to go on and accumulate a match-defining position.

"Our bowlers couldn't get much out of the pitch and the runs flowed easily," Gooch said. "There's no point crying about it. Sometimes one bowler can get more out of the wicket than another. It happens. We have to examine what we can do to improve.

"But England's performances recently have been excellent. They wouldn't be ranked as the best in the world if that were not the case. But in this game South Africa have dominated with the bat. We scored 385, which is not a bad score, but from 270 for 3, we were looking to double the score and, had we done that, it might have made it a different game."

It might. But whichever way you look at it, in this match South Africa have provided England with a masterclass in Test cricket. If the tourists can finish the job on the final day it will surely prove desperately difficult to overhaul them in the remaining two Tests. England No.1 status is hanging by a thread.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo