England have made much of their mutual honesty in creating a better team. If that is so – and their captain, Andrew Strauss, was insisting it only the previous day – the walls of the home dressing room will have been dripping last night with self-recrimination, meae culpae and one-to-one personal criticism.
The place should have been a veritable melting pot of confession and censure. Nor should its level have been reduced by the recovery of the first innings on the first day of the third Test, which was engineered by Matthew Prior, primarily, and Stuart Broad. It could compensate for but hardly eradicate earlier failings.
England, after being 94 for 7, were bowled out for 213. Pakistan, who had the better of the conditions in the evening when the sun shone (but then the toss had gone to England) lost a wicket in the last over of the day but had cut the deficit to 155 with Yasir Hameed, recalled to open, thoroughly enjoying himself.
It was more or less a complete transformation of fortunes earlier in the series. England need to bowl as well today as Pakistan did yesterday and Pakistan will have to bat as indifferently as did England for equity to be reached. Neither, of course, is improbable.
By common consent, it was a beautiful surface for batting but all England's specialists departed without any of them scoring 20, presumably to convene an honest injun' symposium. Pakistan bowled splendidly, their seamers making all they could of the initial overcast conditions and England fell meekly into their hands, providing six catches behind the wicket long before the day was half done.
For a brief period it looked eminently possible that The Oval would witness the fourth double-figure Test innings total of the summer and the sixth below 150. That calamity was averted when the sun emerged fully, the ball softened, the bowlers tired and the batting became much more proficient.
Prior, brisk and businesslike, took the attack to the opponents, leading the way for Broad, whose batting has been fairly dismal of late. Their stand of 119 was England's highest for the eighth wicket against Pakistan and ninth in the overall list. It dragged England back into the contest; it did not give them a position of control.
The match could have started neither worse nor more predictably for England. It was in only its second over when Alastair Cook edged his seventh ball, from the sterling Mohammad Asif, who was again persuading the ball to sing and dance, to the wicketkeeper.
Cook is in the worst run of his life – 106 now in eight innings – and it must end shortly one way or the other. Of course England are all in this together, of course they want Cook, an integral part of their team as it has been remodelled in ethos if not personnel, to open the batting with Strauss in Australia this winter. But there comes a time when it really cannot go on.
If Cook is under obvious scrutiny, these are not the rosiest of times for Strauss. His last hundred was 23 innings ago, he has never properly fired this summer and he must know it. Though he was given not out when Pakistan appealed for a catch behind he must have feared what was coming as soon as they asked for a review. This was the system working as it was meant to do.
That was the first Test wicket for Wahab Riaz, a left-arm bowler reminiscent in build of his Indian counterpart Zaheer Khan. If he does not possess Zaheer's tricks there were four more wickets where that came from as he found sufficient lift from the pitch and was able to straighten the ball enough to disconcert right- and left-handers like. In six matches during Pakistan's domestic season he never took more than two wickets in an innings and he had not played a match for a month; it mattered not.
Before lunch, England were five down and in disarray. Jonathan Trott was well caught at third slip by Yasir, laying the Pakistan catching ghosts of Edgbaston. Trott's decision was reviewed by the umpires checking whether Wahab had bowled a no-ball. It was close but he had not. Much more of this common-sense approach and Test cricket will be in danger of regaining self-respect.
Paul Collingwood chopped Mohammad Aamer on to his stumps, Kevin Pietersen, never settled, also edged Wahab behind. Shortly after lunch, Wahab, by now finding Test cricket ridiculously easy, dispatched Eoin Morgan with one hitting the pitch and moving slightly away, and Graeme Swann was held comfortably at slip off Asif.
It is at least to England's credit that they did not immediately succumb. Prior, the object of so much irrational criticism two or three years ago, is becoming a considerable cricketer. Once more, he did not shirk his responsibilities but embraced them as adoringly as a little boy his favourite teddy bear. As always, he decided to play his shots and his driving was delicious.
Broad kept pace with him throughout the afternoon and beyond tea until he got within sight of his 50. His first 40 runs came in 52 balls, his next eight when he was plumb in front to give Wahab his fifth wicket in 25. It left Prior stranded and neither Jimmy Anderson nor Steve Finn troubled the scorers. Anderson went 54 innings from the start of his Test career without recording a duck and now he has made five in his last 15. This, suffice to say, may be a truer reflection of his batting talents.
Prior was left unbeaten on 84, his 15th Test fifty which, if anybody asks, is half as many as the legendary Alan Knott in around a third of the innings. Knott had other things going for him as well, of course, but Prior really is getting there. For England's sake at present he needs to stay there.
Oval timeline: The first day's events
10.30 England win a good toss and automatically choose to bat on what everyone agrees is a prime surface for batting.
11.07 Having made 100 runs in his previous seven Test innings, Alastair Cook makes it 106 in eight by edging one holding its own. It was a thin edge – but it was enough.
11.50 The suspicion that England may not after all have made the smartest decision takes root as captain Andrew Strauss gives Kamran Akmal his second catch and debutant Wahab Riaz his first wicket in Test cricket.
12.11 And another one right in here, please. Jonathan Trott gets a thicker edge to third slip where Yasir Hameed makes nonsense of Pakistan's alleged weakness in the catching department.
12.20 Brigadier Block himself, so often the last one standing, Paul Collingwood chops on his seventh ball. At least it was not another edge behind.
12.51 But this one is – again to Kamran – as Kevin Pietersen feathers one lifting and going across him and immediately walks.
1.56 England are now in deep trouble with all their front-line batsmen gone as Eoin Morgan nudges one lifting and moving off the pitch to the keeper.
2.15 There seems no way out for England as Graame Swann edges a conventional away-swinger to third slip, seven down and only three to go.
3.40 By tea, with a little luck, a softer ball, the sun shining at last and aggression mixed with diligence, the estimable Matt Prior and Stuart Broad have begun to rebuild and taken England to 175.
4.42 Having played well in support of Prior, Broad is out agonisingly short of a deserved fifty, falling for 48. It's that man again, Wahab.
4.50 Jimmy Anderson is out quickly, but not before referring umpire Steve Davis's decision. The replay only serves to confirm that Anderson's stumps would have been splayed across the Oval turf had he not got his leg in the way.
5.10 The last man, Steve Finn, is out, leaving Prior stranded and visibly annoyed. His 84 not out, however, must be among the best innings he has ever played.
5.53 Pakistan make a quick start to their innings and a couple of boundaries off Stuart Broad by Yasir Hameed confirm who is in charge.
6.31 Imran Farhat plays on to Jimmy Anderson to give England hope.
The Oval scoreboard
Third Test (First day of five) Pakistan trail England by 185 runs with nine first-innings wickets remaining; England won toss
England: First Innings
*A Strauss c Akmal b Riaz 15, 34 balls 3 fours
A Cook c Akmal b Asif 6, 7 balls 1 four
J Trott c Hameed b Riaz 12, 34 balls 2 fours
K Pietersen c Akmal b Riaz 6, 29 balls
P Collingwood b Aamer 5, 7 balls 1 four
E Morgan c Akmal b Riaz 17, 43 balls 2 fours
†M Prior lbw b Ajmal 84, 128 balls 14 fours
G Swann c Akmal b Asif 8, 12 balls 2 fours
S Broad lbw b Riaz 48, 77 balls 7 fours
J Anderson lbw b Asif 0, 4 balls
S Finn not out 0, 5 balls
Extras (b 10, lb 11, w 6, nb 5) 32
Total (62.3 overs) 233
Fall 1-9 (Cook), 2-35 (Strauss), 3-40 (Trott), 4-47 (Collingwood), 5-67 (Pietersen), 6-74 (Morgan), 7-94 (Swann), 8-213 (Broad), 9-214 (Anderson), 10-233 (Prior).
Bowling M Aamer 15-4-49-1 (w1, nb1) (4-2-8-0, 4-0-17-1, 3-1-18-0, 4-1-6-0), M Asif 20-5-68-3 (nb2) (6-2-17-1, 7-1-22-1, 3-1-12-0, 4-1-17-1), W Riaz 18-6-63-5 (w4, nb2) (5-2-11-2, 5-3-8-2, 2-0-15-0, 6-1-29-1), S Ajmal 9.3-1-32-1 (3-0-18-0, 6-1-13-0, 0.3-0-1-1).
Pakistan: First Innings
I Farhat b Anderson 11, 55 balls 2 fours
Y Hameed not out 36, 51 balls 6 fours 1 six
W Riaz not out 0, 3 balls
Extras (nb 1) 1
Total (1 wkt, 18 overs) 48
Fall 1-48 (Farhat).
To bat *Salman Butt, Mohammad Yousuf, Azhar Ali, Umar Akmal, †Kamran Akmal, Mohammad Aamer, Saeed Ajmal, Mohammad Asif.
Bowling J Anderson 7-2-19-1 (nb1) (4-1-13-0, 3-1-6-1), S Broad 6-2-28-0 (one spell), S Finn 3-3-0-0 (one spell), G Swann 2-1-1-0 (one spell).
Umpires S J Davis (Aus) & A L Hill (NZ).
TV replay umpire B F Bowden (NZ).
Match referee R S Madugalle (S Lanka).