Like a toothless man confronted with the hardest of apples, England's bowlers were left hungry and frustrated by South Africa's batting line-up at The Oval. It was not just that England managed only one wicket. It was that the ball hardly beat the bat all day and batting against England's much-vaunted bowling attack - a key part of their success in recent times - looked easy. Worryingly easy, from an England perspective.

It means England's batsmen - already behind by 18 runs, with a great deal more to come - are likely to face a testing final day fighting for a draw. The advantage of winning the toss and bowling last on a surface expected to turn has gone. South Africa's legspinner Imran Tahir, now charged with bowling his side to victory, faces what may prove to be a defining day in his Test career.

It has been some time since England's bowlers were rendered so impotent for so long. Perhaps not since Brisbane at the start of the 2010-11 Ashes, when Mike Hussey and Brad Haddin added 307 together, though England were also thrashed around Edgbaston a few weeks ago by West Indies' No. 11, Tino Best

The comparison with that Ashes game is perhaps more relevant, though. For while England's attack struggled in that game, it is worth remembering what happened in the rest of the series: England's bowlers established a growing dominance over Australia and the struggles of that first game were put down to an unusually flat track. It may well prove to be the same this time. While there is some assistance for spin bowlers, the turn is painfully slow.

Some will look for quick fixes and easy answers. They will say that Steven Finn or Graham Onions should have played in place of either Tim Bresnan or Ravi Bopara and that England would be better for the presence of five bowlers in their line-up.

Perhaps they have a point. Perhaps Finn, with his extra pace and height, may have coaxed some seam movement from this sleepy surface. Or perhaps his extra pace would simply have aided the batsmen. Perhaps Chris Tremlett, another huge man capable of extracting extra bounce from even the most docile surface, might also have made a difference. It is hard to avoid the conclusion, though, that Tremlett, Finn and Onions will have seen the hard labour of their colleagues on this pitch and counted themselves rather fortune to have sat this one out.

The last time England conceded more than 500 was in Cardiff, at the start of the 2009 Ashes, when Australia scored 674 for 6 against a five-man England bowling attack. Not only did three of this England attack also play in that game - James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann - but they again showed later in the series that, given some help from the conditions, they could still be highly effective. These things happen.

Still, this was a performance that requires some reflection from the England management. The worry must be that England's bowlers were unable to gain any of the lateral movement achieved by their South Africa counterparts. All England's weapons - their new ball skills, their reverse swing, the dominance of Swann's spin against left-handers - proved ineffective and their default position, the ability to apply pressure through tight bowling, also gradually fell away a little after an excellent start: all England's frontline seamers conceded more than three an over and, while South Africa progressed at a rate of just 2.17 runs per over for the first 51 overs of their innings, that had risen above three by the time they reached the 130th over.

Their plans did not work, either. The attempt to nip the ball back into Graeme Smith and trap him leg before was negated by the batsman's improved balance and the lack of swing, but it took England a long time to alter course and bowl outside off stump in an attempt to induce an edge. While Anderson remained tight, Broad was unusually anodyne for one so talented. Indeed, for a time, he was out-bowled by Bopara. It may be relevant that all three England seamers appear to have lost some of their pace over the last year. Sans seam, swing or pace, they looked a modest outfit.

"I wouldn't have said there was bad bowling," David Saker, England's bowling coach, said afterwards. "It was extremely good batting from Smith and [Hashim] Amla in particular and then Kallis put the icing on the cake. It was a very flat wicket. Our guys toiled very well. There was some very good batting. We couldn't get the ball to move laterally - with new ball or old ball - which is one of our big strengths.

"We haven't had days like this very often. It was a tough day, but I was proud of the way the bowlers kept running in and kept toiling away. They did everything we asked of them, but they couldn't get the ball to move and the batting was exceptional. We did talk often, sometimes at drinks breaks we had messages sent out to them, but we just couldn't find a way through the defences of the batters. I think the pitch will be okay on day five to bat on.

England's main problem was simply that they came up against some high-quality, determined batsmen on a slow wicket - Saker described it as "subcontinental". They were reliant for breakthroughs on batsman error and the batsmen refused to make any. That is the key to beating England.

Test cricket has changed a great deal in recent years and England have benefited. While teams of the past were quite happy to accumulate quietly and take a safety-first approach, the last couple of decades have seen a more aggressive brand of cricket emerge. Much of England's success has come against impatient batsmen whose first method of defence is to attack and who lack either the technique or temperament to withstand old-fashioned, disciplined English-style seam and swing bowling.

It is probably wise to hold judgement on the quality of the pitch until the end of the game. But pitches like this, deathly slow and sluggish, do little to encourage positive cricket and have given two fine bowling attacks little chance to shine. In front of full-house crowds paying large sums for tickets, that seems an unwise long-term ploy. Indeed, as an increasingly disgruntled crowd found their own entertainment in Mexican waves and the like, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that pitches like this present one of the gravest threats to the future of Test cricket.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo