ENGLAND: “WE need a miracle.” Ben Stokes: “Hold my beer.”
Sadly, it did not quite pan out that way at SuperSport Park, where hopes of another Stokes-inspired miracle were scuppered by South Africa.
The hero of Headingley was reduced to mortal as the hosts won the first Test by 107 runs.
Chasing 376, 17 runs more than the target at Leeds against Australia in August, England subsided from an overnight 121-1 to 268 all-out shortly before tea on day four.
The key moment came with Stokes’s dismissal just before the second new ball with the score standing at 204-3.
There is a lot to be said for trying to hit the top of off stump over and over again.Chris Waters
Having batted watchfully for 14 off 54 balls, Stokes tried to dab his 55th away behind square on the offside only for the delivery from left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj to flick the glove and on to the stumps.
Maharaj wheeled away in Imran Tahir-style celebration and Stokes departed a frustrated figure.
Sometimes, not even Superman can ride to the rescue, and lightning doesn’t often strike twice.
Yet the portents were there for the eternally optimistic.
When Stokes came to the crease following the departures of overnight batsmen Rory Burns and Joe Denly, England needed a further 218 runs.
When Stokes came to the crease at Headingley four months ago, England needed – yes, you’ve guessed it – a further 218 runs.
In addition, Stokes had suffered such a traumatic week, with his father rushed to hospital in Johannesburg but now happily out of intensive care, that the stage seemed set for a happy conclusion to his annus mirabilis.
Stokes had also been ill earlier in the match, with many of the England squad having been laid low with flu, and it would have been typical of him had he somehow snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
The illness bug that has cut through the camp must be factored into a disappointing defeat, as must the general lack of proper preparation/acclimatization following the recent tour to New Zealand.
But the main reason why England lost this match was palpably clear. They simply did not score enough first innings runs, bowled out for 181 in reply to 284 after putting South Africa into bat, in itself a highly contentious decision.
From 142-3 in that first innings, England lost their last seven wickets for 39 runs in the sort of collapse we are used to seeing.
Starting with Stokes, they also lost their last seven second innings wickets yesterday for 64 runs, and although there were some poor shots mixed in, a total of 268 on a fourth day pitch against that attack was not a poor effort.
What was poor – in addition to the first innings batting – was England’s bowling in South Africa’s second innings. For reasons known only to themselves, they bowled too short on Saturday in conditions conducive to pure line and length.
That is was South Africa did so well, with Kagiso Rabada, Vernon Philander and Anrich Nortje to the fore, backed up by debutant Dwaine Pretorious and Maharaj, who greatly impressed at Yorkshire last summer and who is returning for the first two County Championship games of next season.
South Africa did not try to reinvent the wheel but kept plugging away at the basics of the game. There is a lot to be said for trying to hit the top of off stump over and over again.
Defeat is a setback for England in a four-match series, but there is nothing to particularly fear about this South Africa side.
They looked equally frail with the bat and were 111-5 in their first innings before man-of-the-match Quinton de Kock played a decisive innings of 95, while they have lost opening batsman Aiden Markram for the rest of the series to a finger injury; he has been replaced by the somewhat spookily-named Keegan Peterson, an uncapped 26-year-old who hails from Paarl.
One thing they do have in their favour, however, is a fine captain in Faf du Plessis, a core of good bowlers and a coaching team who appear to have made an instant impression.
Graeme Smith, Mark Boucher and Jacques Kallis were all installed after the recent crisis involving the running of South African cricket, and this will have given them a huge boost ahead of the remaining Tests in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg.
For England, it is back to the drawing board before that next Test at Cape Town on January 3, where an instant fightback is clearly desirable.
They had gone into the fourth day at Centurion with high hopes of pulling off another miracle to rival the one that Stokes helped to mastermind at Headingley.
But, as the old saying goes, it’s the hope that kills you.