Bolstered by Phil Tufnell's remarkable return of 7 for 64, England had bravely clawed their way back into this match, before again handing the initiative back to Australia as three wickets were lost before bad light brought a premature close to the day.
It could - and should - have been England's day. After Tufnell's masterful bowling performance, the mood in England's shell-shocked dressing- room would have brightened considerably.
But Australia are a resilient force, and their narrow first-innings lead of 38 looked gargantuan as, first, Michael Atherton then Alec Stewart and Mark Butcher were sent packing, the latter to an lbw that was by some distance the worst instance of some highly dubious umpiring. If any thoughts of belated glory still abound, England will need at least a 200-run lead to give themselves any chance of victory.
Nevertheless, if the prognosis remains gloomy, this Test was still enlivened by Tufnell's remarkable bowling. The Middlesex spinner, has had to do some travelling to get to this point. During this series he has travelled almost 1,100 miles just to collect his 12th man fee. But if England perhaps regret their reticence in introducing him earlier in the piece, Tufnell would probably settle for this belated jackpot.
His unbroken spell of 34.3 overs (27.2 of them yesterday) from the Pavilion End was as much a feat of endurance as anything else for even spinners, especially their fingers, get tired. Yet Tufnell kept turning it, his reputation as a man who used to balk under the pressure of a helpful pitch receding with every Australian wicket.
With the two openers in the bag from the previous evening, the Middlesex spinner quickly settled into a testing groove. With both Andy Caddick and Devon Malcolm contributing accurate spells from the other end, England were able to build pressure, something they have not managed frequently enough in this series.
When that happens something inevitably gives and for once it had Made in Australia printed on it as Mark Waugh, playing low, gloved his forward prod to silly point. Waugh, who has previously taken spinners of all creeds to the cleaners, had been kept ominously quiet and it was no more than Tufnell deserved after he got one to bounce and turn.
Having found the right pace to bowl, Tufnell stuck to "keeping the ball in the danger area as often as possible". But if it was a ploy calculated to give him maximum benefits, his dismissal of Greg Blewett owed more to good fortune than good cricket, though Stewart's catch to pouch the ball, which had actually come by way of sweat band and forearm, was outstanding.
The next catch, however, was pure vaudeville. Having narrowly failed to stump Ian Healy as Tufnell lured the wicket-keeper down the pitch - the TV replay showed his toe was grounded milliseconds before Stewart removed the bails - Stewart made amends, catching Healy's thick edge between his thighs. It was a bizarre dismissal and as someone in the crowd later joked: "That Stewart may not have much between his ears, but he's got what counts between his legs."
With the left-handed Shaun Young capping his Test debut with a duck after gloving a snorter that bounced and turned out of the rough, Australia found themselves 162 for 7, and England had a chance of taking a first- innings lead. But as has happened so often this series the tail, this time with Ricky Ponting, brought the visitors crucial runs. Indeed by the time Tufnell had got rid of Ponting, to give him his second seven-wicket haul in Tests, 56 runs had been added for the last three wickets.
Tufnell was well supported throughout, mainly by Caddick whose 10-over spell either side of lunch was, if not his best spell for England, certainly his most aggressive.
The selectors' barmy decision to leave Caddick out at Headingley aside, he has had a good series generally. Although there remains a propensity to bowl far too many boundary balls - something he shares with all the other England pace bowlers - he is the bowler that has most troubled Steve Waugh, the batsman whose wicket is prized most among both cognoscenti and layman alike.
With his awkward bounce and occasional late swing, Caddick, for once bristling like a prize fighter rather than apologising like a diplomat, rapped Waugh's gloves before winning a rather dubious, but none the less deserved, leg before decision against the doughty Australian.
It did not end there and when he later returned, he removed both the Shane Warne and Michael Kasprowicz with successive balls.
It might have been a hat-trick too, had Glenn McGrath's swish made contact. Heartening though it all was, however, you could not help but get the feeling that, like England, the tall Somerset paceman had left it far too late.
The Oval scoreboard
England won toss
ENGLAND -First Innings 180 (G D McGrath 7-76).
AUSTRALIA -First Innings
(Overnight: 77 for 2)
G S Blewett c Stewart b Tufnell 45
(158 min, 132 balls, 4 fours)
M E Waugh c Butcher b Tufnell 19
(79 min, 69 balls, 2 fours)
S R Waugh lbw b Caddick 22
(51 min, 34 balls, 2 fours)
R T Ponting c Hussain b Tufnell 40
(133 min, 96 balls, 3 fours, 1 six)
I A Healy c Stewart b Tufnell 2
(50 min, 34 balls)
S Young c Stewart b Tufnell 0
(7 min, 3 balls)
S K Warne b Caddick 30
(38 min, 34 balls, 3 fours, 1 six)
M S Kasprowicz lbw b Caddick 0
(1 min, 1 ball)
G D McGrath not out 1
(14 min, 5 balls)
Extras (lb3 w1 nb5) 9
Total (326 min, 79.3 overs) 218
Fall (cont): 3-94 (M E Waugh) 4-138 (S R Waugh) 5-148 (Blewett) 6-162 (Healy) 7-162 (Young) 8-203 (Warne) 9-203 (Kasprowicz).
Bowling: Malcolm 11-2-37-0 (nb1) (4-1-20-0, 7-1-17-0); Martin 15-5-38- 0 (nb2, w1) (5-1-18-0, 3-1-8-0, 7-3-12-0); Caddick 19-4-76-3 (nb1) (6- 1-24-0, 10-2-36-1, 3-1-16-2); Tufnell 34.3-16-64-7 (nb2) (one spell)
Progress: Rain stopped play: 11.09-11.28am 82 for 2 (Blewett 15, M Waugh 13) 28 overs. Rain stopped play: 11.41am-12.11pm 85 for 2 (Blewett 16, M Waugh 14) 31.2 overs. 100: 146 min, 36.3 overs. Lunch: 125 for 3 (Blewett 38, S Waugh 12) 44 overs. 150: 222 min, 55.5 overs. Rain stopped play: 3.39pm, tea taken at 188 for 7 (Ponting 26, Warne 16) 73 overs. 200: 304 min, 75.1 overs. Innings closed: 4.31pm.
ENGLAND -Second Innings
M A Butcher lbw b M E Waugh 13
*M A Atherton c S Waugh
b Kasprowicz 8
A J Stewart lbw b Kasprowicz 3
N Hussain not out 2
G P Thorpe not out 22
Extras (b2 lb2) 4
Total (for 3, 27 overs) 52
Fall: 1-20 2-24 3-26.
To bat: M R Ramprakash, A J Hollioake, P J Martin, A R Caddick, P C R Tufnell, D E Malcolm.
Umpires: L H Barker and P Willey.
TV Replay Umpire: K E Plamer.
Match referee: C E Smith.Reuse content