For an unconscionable period yesterday, it was possible to assume that England might never take another wicket in Test cricket. By the close of play, just when the grim feeling had begun to descend again, they at last applied resistance to the South African juggernaut.
But it was another gruelling day for the world's top-ranked side, a remorselessly successful one for the men who are threatening any time soon to wrest that title away. Throughout large parts of the opening day of the second Test, the bowling attack which had been the best on the planet wilted before our eyes, aided and abetted by a strange but unavoidable decision to field on a beautiful summer's morning.
Little they tried seemed to work and when it did, the gods of cricket, also sometimes known as the umpires, conspired against them in such a bizarre fashion that before the evening arrived, MCC was issuing statements as if it still ran the show.
The way things were going, the Olympic Games of Rio de Janeiro would have been and gone before England struck gold again. Graeme Smith, who has done this kind of thing before against England, and Alviro Petersen, who hasn't, had entered cruise mode for the first wicket at 120 without loss. And then the kind of event that had been forgotten suddenly happened.
A little short of midway through the afternoon, Smith clipped off his legs as he has a million times before. The ball travelled about a foot off the ground to backward square leg and there was Ian Bell to snaffle the chance. The first wicket was worth 120 but 497 runs had been amassed since the tourists had lost their previous wicket.
Relief was more palpable than jubilation and the sense of English powerlessness was to return. Petersen, dropped in the morning, became the fourth of their batsmen to make a hundred in the series. He was spared by a review of an lbw verdict towards the end, which he eventually reached on 124 not out.
But South Africa lost two wickets to the second new ball towards the close and ended on 262 for five. They looked human again with all the vulnerability that entails. Therein lay English hope. In a way the removal of the men who had been immoveable at The Oval was a veritable triumph for England. Hashim Amla, the unbeaten triple centurion, was run out attempting a third run against Tim Bresnan's hammer arm from deep cover, perhaps by now thinking himself impregnable.
His partner in the record unbroken third-wicket partnership of 377, Jacques Kallis, slashed Jimmy Anderson to second slip where Alastair Cook, in an unfamiliar position, took a smart, low catch. Kallis might have considered himself slightly unfortunate since Cook had made an utter hash of a much more straightforward chance earlier in the day.
But thereafter, a break for rain having dissipated hopes of reverse swing, South Africa progressed inexorably to 262 for five
England are not out of it but nor are they yet deeply in it.
In dire need of victory after their heavy defeat in the first Test, they demonstrated their present desperate mindset when their team was announced at the toss.
For the first time in nine years they elected to take the field without a specialist spinner, omitting Graeme Swann after 43 consecutive matches.
By any light, the choice of four fast bowlers was a gamble and it meant that England had little choice but to field first and make swift inroads into South Africa.
They must have known that since Swann made his debut late in 2008, he has been by far England's leading wicket-taker. Inviting a side to bat inevitably suggests that you intend to bowl them out for this side of 300 and the captain, Andrew Strauss, presumably after consultation with the coach, Andy Flower, was cocking a snook at history.
In 2003 at this ground against South Africa, England fielded first with a four-man seam attack and were beaten by 191 runs. In 1989, England asked Australia to bat, put their four seamers to work as their opponents took their first innings into the third day while making 601 for seven.
The omission of Swann meant that Cook had to take over the position at second slip when Anderson was bowling.
For every decision in cricket there are consequences, as England have found before this summer, and although there is no more assiduous toiler than Cook in practice, there was the suspicion that they were taking the novel initiative of trying to hide their worst fielder at slip.
In the 10th over, after Petersen had raced to 29, seizing voraciously if nervously on some indifferent bowling, he edged Anderson to second slip. It was a regulation catch and Cook put it down. Anderson kicked the ground in anger.
Worse followed three overs later. Smith had been starved of the bowling when he edged one going across him to first slip where Strauss firmly clutched the chance that would make him England's most prodigious catcher, his 121st, taking him in front of Colin Cowdrey and Ian Botham, one a baron, the other a knight.
But something was wrong. Umpire Steve Davis had called dead ball as Finn came past him and dislodged the bail with his trailing right knee. It was the fifth time it had happened already in the morning and has been a feature of Finn's career.
But the batsmen, it was to transpire, had complained that it was a distraction and under Law 23 4b vi, Davis took action to which he was entitled. Somewhat sniffily, MCC, which is still the guardian of the laws, said in a statement later that Davis was right.
Whether Smith was truly distracted is a moot point. After his escape, he pulled and cut Finn for fours and did not seem at all fazed by the bails having been removed. Davis was at least consistent, making his signal and thus declaring the runs void.
What was going through England's minds is not difficult to guess. Today could define their immediate future.
Timeline: How the opening day unfolded at Headingley
11.49am: Dropped catch South Africa 34-0
An early miss for England, Alviro Petersen edging an easy chance off James Anderson to second slip, which Alastair Cook puts down.
2.23pm: Half-centuries; wicket South Africa 120-1
Petersen and Graeme Smith make fifties before the latter flicks Tim Bresnan to Bell at backward square leg.
2.48pm: Wicket South Africa 132-2
A crucial moment. A misfield leads to miscommunication and Hasim Amla is stranded and run out.
3.28pm: Wicket South Africa 157-3
Another big wicket for England. Jacques Kallis's ominous scoring rate is quelled as Anderson tempts him to edge to Cook, who holds on.
6.15pm: Century South Africa 201-3
After a 90-minute rain delay Petersen settles in, reaching his ton by pulling Stuart Broad to the midwicket boundary.
7.14pm: Dropped catch; wickets South Africa 259-5
A B de Villiers is dropped by Anderson, but soon bowled by Broad. Dale Steyn quickly follows, bowled by Finn.
First day in numbers
49 Test matches as England captain by Andrew Strauss.
603 The wicket of Graeme Smith was England's first in Test cricket for 10 hours and three minutes.
29 The score unbeaten centurion Alviro Petersen was on when dropped by Alastair Cook.
43 Consecutive Tests played by Graeme Swann, before being left out of the team yesterday.