Taken in isolation, England had a good third day in the fourth and final Test match at The Oval on Saturday, taking seven wickets for 163 and scoring 78 for the loss of Marcus Trescothick by the close.

But such was the depth of the big hole they dug for themselves by their totally inept performances with bat and ball on the first two days that they barely loosened Pakistan's vice-like grip on the match.

Only the weather or a couple of big centuries appeared likely to save them from defeat, but at least they gave the 23,000 crowd something to cheer about.

The nagging worry about Thursday and Friday was that England's malaise might be something more permanent than just a couple of bad days at the office.

The awful bowling centred on the inability of a four-man attack to offer Andrew Strauss any control. Saturday's seven wickets in 48 overs only partly recovered lost ground, and surely cannot persuade the selectors to continue with the tactic, whether or not Andrew Flintoff is fit.

The first-innings batting was less culpable, because of the splendid bowling of Mohammad Asif, well supported by Umar Gul.

Strauss and the impressive Alastair Cook saw them off on Saturday in some style, rattling up 70 in 15 overs, albeit being helped by plenty of out-field gaps left by Inzamamul-Haq rightly posting a cordon of close catchers.

Rain and bad light took another 25 overs out of the day after three stoppages, but the bonus from the interruptions was that Steve Harmison was able to bowl 15 overs unchanged, helped by a couple of enforced rest periods in the dressing-room.

His in-and-out form is a mystery, not made any easier to solve by him being handicaped by a sore left side.

It can't be the dreaded intercostal injury which has kept Liam Plunkett out of the game for six weeks.

It is physically impossible to bowl with that, but Harmison said that he feels it only in the first two overs of a spell and he will have a scan later this week.

His first-innings speed-gun readings were rarely above 85mph but he consistently racked up 90mph on Saturday.

Not only that but he ran in with purpose and generated a uthentic bounce and movement.

He was still short of consistency but his two returns on Friday and Saturday tell a story. On Friday, his analysis was 15-2-78-0 whereas, on Saturday, it was 15.5-5-47-4.

He cleaned up the last two tail-enders in three balls to add to the more prized wickets of Inzamam and Kamran Akmal, to slip catches by Strauss and Paul Collingwood.

Strauss's was straightforward, the ball flying quickly at a nice height off the bat handle, but his Durham colleague pulled off a low blinder to dismiss Akmal.

Mohammad Yousuf was another mystery man - he had played beautifully for his overnight 115 - but he could only scratch around in the shortened morning session for seven runs in 13 overs and 13 in 17 overs before he got a good one from Matthew Hoggard.

The Yorkshire bowler had promised supporters an improved England performance, saying "we need to bowl well with this second new ball, take a few early wickets and maybe keep their lead down to around 250. Even then, we shall have to bat well but it can be done."

He was on target when the score in mid-afternoon was 398 for six and the lead 225. A quick wrap would have done the England cause a power of good but Faisal Iqbal turned the tide with a masterly, fluent unbeaten 58. He shepherded the tail through to a final total of 504.

He was helped by useful contributions from Shahid Nazar, Gul and Danish Kane-ria in partnerships of 46, 31 and 29 for the seventh, eighth and ninth wickets respectively.

The first two batted well and properly, but Kaneria is an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser from whose bat the ball occasionally ends up between 90 and 180 degrees from his intended flight path.

Back came Harmison and he bounced him out, as well as Mohammad Asif two balls later. Asif is an utter rabbit and it is no surprise that his fifth successive dismissal for a duck equalled a world record in Test cricket with Bob Holland (Australia) and Ajit Agarkar (India). Pakistan started the fourth day heavy odds-on favourites to win. Then came chaos.