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Hashim Amla made history before four late wickets put South Africa in great shape to claim victory over England at The Oval on Sunday.
Amla struck a majestic 311 not out - sharing a record unbroken 377-run partnership with Jacques Kallis (182no) for the third wicket - to become the first triple-centurion from South Africa, who eventually declared at tea on 637-2 with a first-innings lead of 252.
England's plight worsened in the final session when they lost four second innings wickets to close on 102-4 - still 150 runs away from an innings defeat.
Alastair Cook (0), Jonathan Trott (10), Kevin Pietersen (16) and Andrew Strauss (27) all came and went in the evening sun and the hosts now require a monumental effort on the final day if they are to avoid a first Test match defeat on home soil since losing to Pakistan at the same venue in August 2010.
South Africa's declaration came after two further sessions of total dominance from Amla and Kallis over England's tiring bowling attack.
Amla, who gave his only chance when on 40 on day two, went past numerous landmarks after resuming the penultimate day on 183 not out.
The 29-year-old went to his second Test double century off 392 balls in fitting fashion in the 10th over of the fourth day when he drove Stuart Broad elegantly through the covers.
With South Africa's lead growing, Amla and Kallis upped the tempo, the latter reaching his 43rd Test century after drinks with a controlled edge off Tim Bresnan, which found the boundary.
Captain Strauss deployed ultra-defensive fields in a bid to stem the flow of runs, however England were seemingly powerless to prevent what became the highest-ever third wicket partnership against them.
Amla surpassed his previous career-best 253no and then team-mate AB de Villiers' 278 not out - the previous highest Test innings for a South African - before reaching 300 shortly before tea with an expansive drive over extra cover.
On a day where records tumbled, it was also the first time England have conceded two successive double century partnerships in their 924-Test history following Graeme Smith and Amla's epic stand the previous day.
Proteas skipper Smith brought a brief end to England's misery with a tea time declaration, however it did not take long for the home side's woes to increase after the break.
Opener Cook, fresh from a 20th Test century in the first-innings, lasted just six balls second time around as he edged Vernon Philander through to De Villiers to give the tourists a dream start with the ball.
Trott, one of England's key hopes to batting out a draw, then came unstuck when Dale Steyn shaped one away from him and De Villiers pouched a second catch off the outside edge.
Strauss, who helped rescue England from a similar position against Australia at the Gabba in the 2010/11 Ashes series, remained solid at the other end, however it didn't take long for South Africa to a strike for a third time.
Pietersen looked to attack but, after being dropped by Kallis in the slips off Morne Morkel when on 14, his luck ran out when the same bowler sent his middle stump spinning soon after.
With the ball spinning and bouncing appreciably out of the rough, England then lost their skipper when he could only top-edge an attempted sweep off Imran Tahir straight up to Philander at short fine-leg.
Ian Bell (14no), alongside Ravi Bopara (15no) prevented any further damage, but South Africa will start day five as huge favourites to draw first blood in the three-match series.