Less than four weeks have passed since Pakistan wrapped up a rousing victory at Lord's in the first Test, capped by a military-inspired set of press-ups in front of the pavilion, but they return to London with very little of that inspirational vim remaining. Trips to Manchester and Birmingham have resulted in two strength-sapping defeats and it is now England who are flexing their muscles ahead of the Oval encounter.
From entering the series ranked fourth in the world, and thanks to Australia's unexpected capitulation in Sri Lanka, England can suddenly see a shortcut to No. 1. That would require victory in the final Test and a 3-1 series scoreline (as well as West Indies to hold off India in one of their two remaining matches) but they are moving in the right direction regardless. In contrast to their tightly drilled ascent to No. 1 five years ago, England seem a little surprised to have found themselves wandering around the summit so soon - and Alastair Cook is sticking to his line that they have plenty to learn, whatever the rankings say.
An improvement on their record in the final Test of a series is clearly the next matter to address. A draw at The Oval will be enough to give England all nine series trophies but a win would underline the sense of progress rather more emphatically. In recent times, England have finished off Test tours with defeats in Centurion, Sharjah and Barbados, while last summer they were beaten at The Oval and Headingley. Such flakiness is unbecoming of a side with aspirations to be the best in the world.
Another reason to guard against complacency is Pakistan's good record at The Oval. Putting aside the memory of their forfeiture in 2006 (a game in which they were well placed), Pakistan have secured several memorable wins in south London, including Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis reverse-swinging their way through England in 1992 and victory on their most recent visit, six years ago. By contrast, since England clinched the 2009 Ashes on this ground, they have only beaten India (in 2011 and 2014), while suffering three defeats and a draw.
Pakistan will always have Lord's and this tour will be remembered for Misbah-ul-Haq's hundred, the heroics of Yasir Shah and the return of Mohammad Amir. But they have a chance to leave with even better memories if they can pull it all together again back in the capital - not to mention an outside shot of reaching No. 1 themselves with a drawn series. The drill sergeants of Abbottabad, just like everyone else, will be watching keenly.
England: WWLDW (last five completed matches, most recent first) Pakistan: LLWWW
In the spotlight
Having struggled against Pakistan's left-armers, Alex Hales finally produced a substantial contribution with the bat in the second innings at Edgbaston, putting on a vital century stand to help erase England's deficit. However, he is still waiting for the defining, three-figure innings that will secure his tenure as Test opener for the near future. The final Test of the English summer is often the occasion for auditions but Hales - who has put faith in his technique - is hoping to shut the door on prospective top-order newcomers.
As the tour has gone on, confidence in Pakistan's batting has steadily eroded. The fortunes of Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan have been divergent but they have common cause to try and finish the series with heads and bats held high. Misbah has coped admirably with the conditions on his first Test experience of England but another defeat would doubtless trigger talk about his age and the captaincy; Younis, though four years younger, is also unlikely to be back again and, 15 years after his first tour here, is in need of an innings to stave of similar talk of retirement.
Alastair Cook said England were "hoping" to play the same team, which would mean Adil Rashid and Jake Ball missing out again. James Vince has recovered from a finger injury sustained attempting to take a catch at Edgbaston but won't field in the slips.
England (possible) 1 Alastair Cook (capt), 2 Alex Hales, 3 Joe Root, 4 James Vince, 5 Gary Ballance, 6 Jonny Bairstow (wk), 7 Moeen Ali, 8 Chris Woakes, 9 Stuart Broad, 10 Steven Finn, 11 James Anderson
Mickey Arthur hinted at various options for Pakistan's selection, with the need for a fifth bowler even more pressing in the second of back-to-back Tests. If Iftikhar Ahmed - who "bowls offspin and decently," according to Arthur - wins a Test debut, he would likely come into the side at Mohammad Hafeez's expense but bat in the middle order, with Azhar Ali asked to open. A rare four-Test series has increased the workload on Pakistan's pace bowlers and there may also be changes to the attack.
Pakistan (possible) 1 Mohammad Hafeez/Iftikhar Ahmed, 2 Sami Aslam, 3 Azhar Ali, 4 Younis Khan, 5 Misbah-ul-Haq (capt), 6 Asad Shafiq, 7 Sarfraz Ahmed (wk), 8 Yasir Shah, 9 Mohammad Amir, 10 Sohail Khan, 11 Rahat Ali/Wahab Riaz
Pitch and conditions
As before the Ashes Test at The Oval last year, a distinctly green-tinged pitch was on show (although that didn't stop Australia from racking up 481 in an innings win) and Cook suggested it would be "suited to pace bowling", with some turn later on. In Surrey's last Championship match here, in June, spinners Zafar Ansari and Gareth Batty took 12 wickets between them. The forecast is for a warm finish to the week, which could facilitate the surface breaking up.
Stats and trivia
A 3-1 series win for England will send them top of the rankings, at least until the completion of India's tour of the West Indies
Aside from forfeiting the 2006 Test at The Oval, Pakistan have not lost at the ground since 1967
Chris Woakes needs one more wicket to break James Anderson's record of 23 for an England bowler in a Test series against Pakistan
Joe Root is 60 runs short of 4000 in Tests; if he gets there in his next innings, he will go level with Kevin Pietersen as 14th fastest overall
"It would be a great achievement. We've just got to focus on playing good cricket, we've been consistent the last two games, up against it at times but played some consistent cricket - can we have that same hunger and determination in this game? If we can do that, we've got a good chance of winning." Alastair Cook on England's quest for all nine series trophies
"In the third Test match, I believe it was some of our mistakes that let England come back into that game. After doing so much well, we were really in the game until the fourth day - even on the last day, until lunch, it was looking like a draw. So the team can do it but we need to combine those performances." Misbah-ul-Haq wants his players to focus on finishing the series well