England face a tense battle to save the first Investec Test after Hashim Amla became South Africa's first triple-centurion in his record run-fest alongside Jacques Kallis.
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Amla made history several times over on day four at the Kia Oval, most notably when he surpassed team-mate AB de Villiers' 278 not out - the previous highest Test innings for a South African - and then passed 300 before a teatime declaration on 637 for two.
England therefore needed to bat out the remaining four sessions, from 252 in arrears, to avoid going 1-0 down with two to play in defence of their world number one status.
After losing first-innings centurion Alastair Cook for a duck in the second over, they scrambled to a vulnerable 102 for four at stumps.
On a day when the home bowlers were on the wrong end of all the records and statistics, Amla (311no) and Kallis (182no) shared the highest third-wicket stand in England.
Their unbroken partnership of 377 - following the 259 Amla put on with Graeme Smith for the second wicket - powered the tourists into an ominous position, but set the South Africa captain an awkward conundrum over when to declare.
He chose time over extra runs in the bank and left himself the option of a second new ball on Monday, should it be required for a final push.
On a slow pitch yet to show significant signs of wear, there had been no hiding place for England's bowlers.
Amla, who came to the crease with the score 1-1 two days ago, had spent more than 12-and-a-half hours there by the time he just cleared extra-cover off Tim Bresnan to complete his 300 with his 35th four from the 515th delivery he faced.
Kallis was no slouch either, pressing on past his 43rd Test century and towards what could have been his third double, as England's fruitless labours continued under a mocking sun.
He reached his hundred with a controlled edge wide of slip off Bresnan for his 13th four from 227 balls.
South Africa therefore had three centurions in their innings - one fewer than England, Stuart Broad the last bowler to top 100 runs conceded behind James Anderson, Bresnan and Graeme Swann.
There was never a semblance of a chance from either batsman, other than Amla's edge through Andrew Strauss' outstretched fingers at slip off Bopara when he had 40 on Friday evening - and then, on 305, the same bowler missing a sharp return catch.
Even when England resorted to justifiable extremes of defence, bowling wide with boundary sweepers posted in most directions, Amla and Kallis found a way through without undue risk.
It was not until Amla was safely past his triple-century, and Kallis close to his double, that they appeared to dispense with all caution.
The consequence, rather than a first wicket since 3.18pm yesterday, was merely an appropriate increase in the scoring rate.
The same could not be said when England's batsmen tried again after tea, Vernon Philander finding the movement which had evaded the home seamers to take the edge behind as Cook pushed forward.
If England could nominate their two best hopes of batting out the draw, Cook and Jonathan Trott would surely head the list.
But both were out of the equation when the number three also got a useful delivery from Dale Steyn, which appeared to be snaking in but held its line for another edge and De Villiers' seventh catch of the match.
Morne Morkel's tactic of testing Kevin Pietersen with the short ball brought three pulls and three fours, albeit one edged straight over the wicketkeeper's head.
Pietersen then had a bigger slice of luck against Morkel when he guided an edge to a diving Kallis but was put down at second slip.
But he still could not survive an impressive spell, forward but inside the right line to a straight ball which knocked out middle-stump to end a fretful innings - and leave the impression Pietersen's conviction in defence had been compromised by Morkel's aggression.
When Strauss fell to his release shot, mis-sweeping Imran Tahir straight to backward square-leg, there were even fanciful thoughts of an extra half-hour for South Africa.
But Ian Bell and Ravi Bopara closed out the session, and England lived to fight another day.