Needing 153 to avoid the follow-on and almost certain defeat, they were 87 for 6 when bad light stopped play, some 66 runs short of not needing something stronger than an act of God to save them.
It is not a situation that will be unfamiliar to Michael Atherton and his men, who with every passing hour wore the look of condemned men, a fate consigned to them almost as soon as they had lost the toss, and one more or less certain once they had been mauled by Brian Lara's bat and the hostile bowling of Ambrose and company.
Batting, after their bowlers had taken the last six West Indian wickets for 57 runs to claw back an unpromising overnight position, England were quickly in trouble, losing their captain in the fourth over of the innings to the mighty Ambrose.
The wicket, as it always appears to do with the West Indies bowlers, brought a shift of gear. Perhaps surprisingly, given the disintegration of the pitch, it was a change in tempo that Alec Stewart and Mark Butcher appeared to be coping with until Butcher played across an inswinger from Ian Bishop and was lbw.
Four runs later, England were in even deeper trouble when Stewart edged a ball from Courtney Walsh that clearly burst the surface. Feeling the ball had not carried to the wicketkeeper, Stewart stood his ground, waiting until the third umpire, Peter Montfort, had confirmed the catch via television replay.
It was clearly the wicket the home side craved, for they appeared to rein back, Lara bringing on Dinanath Ramnarine for a second bowl following the over he had given him just before tea. Despite several worthy appeals by the leg-spinner, it was inevitable that pace should once again prevail, and it was Walsh, cutting one back sharply into Hussain, who eventually won the umpire's consent.
Not be denied, Ramnarine, persevering into the rough outside Graham Thorpe's off-stump, eventually got into the game, gaining his maiden Test wicket when Thorpe gloved a sweep shot to David Williams. Two overs later, this time coming over the wicket to the left- handed Jack Russell, he had doubled his tally.
It put the importance of the toss into perspective. With no Ambrose or Walsh, or even a Ramnarine, England's bowlers, continuing yesterday morning, knew they had to take quick wickets with the second new ball to have any chance of staying in the match.
As ever, it was entrusted to Angus Fraser, who these days looks as if he needs a good squirt of WD40 to get him going. In fact, Fraser's opening over took 17 minutes, following problems with the footholes, which with the groundsman having apparently filled them in just 40 minutes before the start of play, were still wet. Well though Fraser has bowled throughout this series, and he again trundled straight and true, it was Dean Headley, bowling from the Regent Road End, who ended the dangerous 98-run stand between Carl Hooper and Shivarine Chanderpaul, when he dismissed the right- hander in the eighth over of the morning.
Bustling in, he drew Hooper into a lazy pull shot to a ball that simply got too big on him, the top edge spiralling to cover where Hussain took the catch. Coming directly out of a dazzling sun, it was a fine catch.
In some ways it was a typical Hooper dismissal. Over the years, the West Indies vice- captain has delighted and frustrated his fans with his insouciance at the crease. On a good day, his casual ease oozes class, on a bad one, it smacks of indiscipline, and once again his departure came out of the blue from an unforced error.
With Fraser making almost every ball go through the top, it was only a matter of time before he struck paydirt. Getting one to grip the loose surface, it was third time lucky for Fraser, who having found the edge of Chanderpaul's bat twice the previous day, at last saw a chance go to hand, albeit 109 runs after the first one.
The wicket, Fraser's second of the innings, was also his 49th in the West Indies, a tally which set a new record for wickets by visting players beating the previous best set by Imran Khan of Pakistan.
As Fraser rested, it was Headley who once more who kept England's hopes buoyant by dismissing David Williams for a duck, his third in a row. Batting in a sweater, the diminutive Williams, who has had a bout of flu, should have been dismissed earlier, when Robert Croft found the outside edge with one that drifted.
Unfortunately for the Welshman, Russell spilled the chance. It was not the first mistake the wicketkeeper has made on this tour, and following his failure with the bat, there are bound to be calls for him to go back to the drawing board, or in his case the easel and giving the gloves to Stewart.
Phil Tufnell, who has yet to reach the heights of his Oval performance last summer, at least had the satisfaction of getting Jimmy Adams out lbw. Padding away spin bowlers is a contentious area at the moment and umpire Darrell Hair's decision to give Adams out - well forward but with his bat tucked behind his pad - will have fanned the batsmen's side of the argument.
Up until that moment, spin had not proved to be the force England had hoped when they picked their team for this match. Yet wickets work wonders for the fingers as well as minds and Croft and Tufnell shared the last three wickets between them as West Indies were bowled out for 352.
For the spinners, it was something of belated triumph, a Pyrrhic victory for the gamble England took in picking just two frontline pace bowlers on a pitch that has so far assisted everyone.
Fourth Test scoreboard
West Indies won toss
West Indies - First innings
S L Campbell c Russell b Headley 10
(71 min, 48 balls, 1 four; failed to withdraw bat from lifting delivery)
S C Williams c Thorpe b Fraser 13
(31 min, 20 balls, 1 four, 1 six; edged seaming ball low to first slip)
*B C Lara c Thorpe b Croft 93
(256 min, 201 balls, 13 fours, 2 sixes; smart catch off hard drive to short extra)
S Chanderpaul c Thorpe b Fraser 118
(385 min, 263 balls, 15 fours, 1 six; edged seaming ball to first slip)
C L Hooper c Hussain b Headley 43
(141 min, 78 balls, 4 fours, 1 six; sliced attempted pull to extra-cover)
J C Adams lbw b Tufnell 28
(109 min, 78 balls, 2 fours; padded up outside off stump)
D Williams c Croft b Headley 0
(16 min, 15 balls; pulled short lifting ball to square leg)
I R Bishop c Butcher b Croft 14
(81 min, 64 balls, 2 fours; pad-bat to silly mid-off)
C E L Ambrose c Headley b Tufnell 0
(8 min, 6 balls; wild slog to deep long-on)
C A Walsh not out 3
(13 min, 9 balls)
D Ramnarine c Russell b Croft 0
(6 min, 2 balls, edged attempted sweep to keeper)
Extras (b4, lb14, nb12) 30
Total (564 min, 128.1) 352
Fall: 1-16 (S Williams), 2-38 (Campbell), 3-197 (Lara), 4-295 (Hooper), 5-316 (Chanderpaul), 6-320 (Williams), 7-347 (Adams), 8-349 (Ambrose), 9-352 (Bishop), 10-352 (Ramnarine)
Bowling: Headley 31-7-90-3 (nb6) (9-3-20-1 9-1-31-0 5-2-14-0 5-0-18-1 3-1-7-1), Fraser 33-8-77-2 (nb5) (5-1-10-1 9-4-18-0 4-1-19-0 4-0-8-0 8- 2-13-1 3-0-9-0), Butcher 3-0-15-0 (one spell), Croft 36.1-9-89-3 (nb3) (12-3-26-0 2-1-4-0 7-1-26-1 5-1-15-0 5-1- 12-0 1-1-0-0 4.1-1-6-2), Tufnell 25-10-63-2 (15-3-52-0 1-0-4-0 2-1-1-0 9-7-7-2).
Lara 50: 165 min, 124 balls, 7 fours, 1 six. Chanderpaul 50: 161 min, 119 balls, 8 fours. 100: 305 min, 223 balls, 13 fours, 1 six.
England - First Innings
*M A Atherton c Lara b Ambrose 0
(13 min, 10 balls; edged good-length ball to slip)
A J Stewart c Williams b Walsh 20
(100 min, 74 balls, 4 fours; pushed at seaming delivery, edged to keeper)
M A Butcher lbw b Bishop 11
(66 min, 42 balls, 1 four; trapped on crease playing round straight delivery)
N Hussain lbw b Walsh 11
(75 min, 52 balls, 1 four; hit high on pad by nip-backer)
G P Thorpe c D Williams b Ramnarine 10
(72 min, 44 balls, 1 four; gloved attempted sweep high in air to keeper)
M R Ramprakash not out 13
(54 min, 45 balls, 1 four)
R C Russell lbw b Ramnarine 0
(8 min, 4 balls; beaten by sharply spinning delivery)
R D B Croft not out 5
(28 min, 24 balls)
Extras (b4, lb2, nb11) 17
Total (for 6, 47 overs) 87
Fall: 1-1 (Atherton), 2-37 (Butcher), 3-41 (Stewart), 4-65 (Hussain), 5-73 (Thorpe), 6-75 (Russell)
To bat: D W Headley, A R C Fraser, P C R Tufnell.
Bowling: Walsh 16-4-30-2 (nb4) (5-4-4-0 2-0-5-0 9-0-21-2), Ambrose 10- 5-18-1 (nb5) (one spell), Ramnarine 10-6-12-2 (1-0-4-0 9-6-8-2), Bishop 7-2-16-1 (nb3), Adams 3-2-1-0, Hooper 1-0-4-0 (one spell each).
Umpires: S A Bucknor and D B Hair. TV Replays: P Montfort. Match Referee: B N JarmanReuse content