Less than a fortnight before the Test series begins in Brisbane, neither the captain, Alec Stewart, nor the opener Mark Butcher have scored a first- class half-century on the trip. They now have just two more innings left against Queensland in Cairns later this week to rectify their difficulties before England assemble at the Gabba on 20 November.
Stewart's second-innings duck, completing his first "pair" for England and only the second of his career, followed his withdrawal through injury from England's opening state game against Western Australia last week and leaves the tourists' most important player desperately searching for form.
Butcher, Stewart's Surrey team-mate, has been similarly affected and, after scoring just two in England's first innings, he made only three more than that yesterday to leave obvious questions about whether he had successfully overcome the mental scars from the nasty blow to the head he sustained batting in Perth a week ago.
Their failures left England struggling on 149 for 4 at the close, just 11 runs ahead, with Graham Thorpe and Mark Ramprakash - their last two recognised batsmen - already at the crease facing a tense final day to prevent a psychologically damaging defeat.
"We are not playing up to the standard we need to at the moment," said the tour manager, Graham Gooch, who is well aware of the difficulties of winning in Australia, having made three losing tours as a player. "No one is hiding from the fact that we have to improve and, if we can do that, we will be going into the first Test full of confidence."
Yet England had begun the day impressively, dismissing South Australia for 325 to limit their lead to 138 runs after they had resumed on 262 for 5, with Dominic Cork crowning a fine all-round display by claiming 4 for 45 and Angus Fraser grabbing 3 for 57.
If their successes gave England renewed hope of upsetting the odds in the coming Test series, it was soon undermined by a mixture of bad luck and the poor shot selection which marred their first-innings display and restricted them to a lowly total of just 187.
Butcher, attempting to cut a Jason Gillespie delivery which was fuller than he expected, paid the price when the ball bounced off the bottom edge on to his stumps to give England an early alarm which they failed to heed. Michael Atherton and Nasser Hussain appeared to have calmed England's nerves with a near faultless 46-run partnership until Hussain misjudged the length of a Mark Harrity delivery and was trapped leg before.
That dismissal triggered a costly collapse of three wickets for eight runs in 15 balls with Stewart falling in the very next over when he left a straight delivery from Greg Blewett which rapped him low on the pads.
"As a player and a captain, you want to be in good form and you want the team playing well," Gooch said. "Alec will want to be up front leading the side. To miss the first game through injury and then score no runs is not what you are looking for. He needs to get in during the next match and spend some time at the crease."
England's start to their reply then changed from disappointment to farce with Atherton, unluckily caught at short leg in the first innings having hit a firm leg glance from the middle of the bat, being run out backing up at the non-striker's end.
Thorpe exploited Harrity's overpitched delivery by advancing down the pitch and hit a powerful straight drive which the left-arm seamer deflected on to the stumps as Atherton attempted to regain his ground, and despite inconclusive television evidence the third umpire, Peter Weeks, judged against him.
That left England still 58 runs adrift of avoiding an innings defeat. But Thorpe and Ramprakash responded to the responsibility and forged an unbeaten 69-run partnership with relatively few alarms.
Third day; England won toss
ENGLAND - First Innings 187 (N Hussain 57, D G Cork 51).
SOUTH AUSTRALIA - First Innings
(Overnight: 262 for 5)
J M Vaughan c Thorpe b Fraser 58
T J Nielsen c Thorpe b Fraser 17
E M C Arnold lbw b Cork 6
J N Gillespie not out 18
A R Cook lbw b Cork 1
M A Harrity c Hussain b Such 6
Extras (b2, lb14, nb4) 20
Total (126.5 overs) 325
Fall (cont): 6-288, 7-295, 8-298, 9-302.
Bowling: Cork 29-11-45-4; Tudor 19-2-70-0; Headley 21-1-67-1; Fraser 27-7-57-3; Such 26.5-8-59-1; Ramprakash 4-1-11-1.
ENGLAND - Second Innings
M A Butcher b Gillespie 5
M A Atherton run out 53
N Hussain lbw b Harrity 17
*A J Stewart lbw b Blewett 0
G P Thorpe not out 30
M R Ramprakash not out 33
Extras (lb8, nb3) 11
Total (for 4, 64 overs) 149
Fall: 1-26, 2-72, 3-75, 4-80.
To bat: D G Cork, D W Headley, A J Tudor, A R C Fraser, P M Such.
Bowling: Gillespie 15-8-28-1; Harrity 15-4-48-1; Arnold 15-5-26-0; Johnson 8-1-21-0; Blewett 6-3-6-1; Cook 5-2-12-0.
Umpires: P G Parker and S J Davies.Reuse content