England supporters could be forgiven for thinking they might have caught a sight of the ghosts of Christmas past and future at The Kia Oval on Saturday.

For England bowled pretty well here. They attempted to build pressure, they attempted well-considered plans and they made India work for nearly every run. But in conditions where they could not find assistance from either the ball or the surface, it looked an uneven battle against hungry, talented batters. It was, in short, all a little bit reminiscent of the last Ashes tour in 2017-18. And, you fear, a foretaste of the Ashes tour of 2021-22.

Let's give credit where it's due: India's openers, in particular, have batted with admirable fortitude and skill in difficult conditions throughout this series. They weren't likely to pass up the chance to fill their boots in more comfortable conditions. Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul are now the only two men, besides Joe Root, to have scored centuries in the series and may well have earned their side an opportunity to win it.

But England will reflect that, the last time they left Australia in January 2018, they vowed to return with an attack which had the pace and aggression to extract more from the flat surfaces anticipated. And now, as they reflect on the certain absence of Jofra Archer and the possible absence of Olly Stone and Ben Stokes, it will be dawning on them that they face the prospect of returning with a very similar attack to that which was defeated four years ago. Very similar and four years older.

Certainly there was a familiarity about the England attack here. Each of the four seamers operated at somewhere around 80mph, each of them was right-arm and each of them struggled to gain assistance from the pitch or the ball. Only Craig Overton should look back on this day with any sense of reproval. As willing as he is, he will know that to concede 37 from nine overs on the day allowed India a release from the pressure built by his seam-bowling colleagues. And in conceding more than four an over, Moeen Ali, the off-spinner, was unable to provide his captain with the control he required.

At such moments, it is tempting to look beyond the team and wonder what might have been. The pace of Mark Wood or left-arm angle of Sam Curran might have added some variety. But Curran, it might be remembered, has played three Tests in this series - all of them on more helpful surfaces - and taken his wickets at a cost of 79.33 apiece. While Wood, for all his qualities, takes his Test wickets in England at a cost of 40.71. He's only claimed one (albeit in one Test) at The Oval. Besides, England may well want him for the Test at Emirates Old Trafford later in the week and, given his unique value to the team, there may be a reluctance to risk him in back-to-back matches. Different isn't always better.

Not for the first time, England looked a little short of ideas once the Dukes ball refused to swing. Without an outright fast bowler to turn to, it fell to Chris Woakes and Overton to test batters with the short ball. At one point Woakes, with two men back for the hook, tested Rohit with a bouncer; the ease with which he rolled his wrists on the ball and accepted the single to fine-leg spoke volumes. Later, Overton went round the wicket in an attempt to discomfort Rohit and Cheteshwar Pujara; it was a Labrador barking at a lion, really.

"We tried everything," Paul Collingwood, one of England's assistant coaches said later. "But we couldn't get the ball moving. And they played beautifully. Rohit has reined himself in and been very watchful."

Weariness may have been a factor. James Anderson, for example, is 39 years old and playing his fourth Test in a month. Woakes is playing his first first-class game in more than a year and Ollie Robinson has bowled more overs than anyone else in the series. They gave this challenge everything they had. It would be unreasonable to ask for more from any of them.

One area England really have to improve is in their catching. They have, at this point in the match, missed six chances in the field including Rory Burns reprieving Rohit twice in the second innings; once on 6 and once on 31. Given that they have taken only 13 wickets, it suggests the bowlers are having to create anything up to 30 chances a game if they are to have a chance of bowling the opposition out twice. Eventually, that is going to come back to bite.

Collingwood pointed out, with some justification, that The Oval has a reputation for being a tough ground for fielders to pick up the ball. But this is not a problem that has only occurred at The Oval. England's catching has been fallible for some time and they are consistently rated as one of the worst Test teams in terms of taking potential chances. And in placing Burns at second slip, there was always a risk this could happen.

Burns, to be fair, is a fine fielder. He has taken some sharp chances for England over the last couple of years. But they have tended to be in the gully. So to ask him to take on such a specialist position in such a big game was always a high-risk strategy. He doesn't even field there for his county, Surrey. It seems incongruous that, at a time when attention to detail and data are such buzz phrases in coaching, that England should find themselves with a makeshift slip cordon and trust that things will be all right on the night. The ability to catch - and to catch in such specialist positions - really does have to be factored in to selection.

And maybe England will reflect, once again, on their batting. Perhaps, had they extended their first-innings total to somewhere around 350, they could have put India under a little more pressure or at least reduced the size of their own task in the fourth innings. Once they pitch had settled, there really was an opportunity to be a little more ruthless. Some of those dismissals, not least Moeen's and Robinson's, look more than a little soft.

The good news for England is that this pitch really does not hold many terrors. And there's not much evidence of it deteriorating as the match progresses in recent years. It's not at all impossible India's bowlers could also find it hard work over the last day or two. We could yet have a memorable finish ahead of us.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo