England failed to complete another mission impossible as they bowed out of 2019 with a 107-run defeat in the Boxing Day Test against South Africa.
The tourists arrived at Centurion’s SuperSport Park harbouring hopes of another improbable victory and a record chase of 376, channelling memories of their World Cup final win at Lord’s and the Ashes miracle at Headingley, but found themselves all out of escape acts.
Even Ben Stokes, the starring act in both of those dramas, could not find it in himself to defy cricketing logic one more time.
Against a spirited, talented and united South African attack they were bowled out for 268 late on the fourth afternoon to go 1-0 behind in the four-match series.
Romantics and superstitious fans would have found brief hope in Stokes’ arrival at the crease with 218 runs needed to win – the exact figure required when he strode out at Leeds in August – but his departure for 14, bowled by the left-arm spin of Keshav Maharaj was the biggest body blow of all.
Rory Burns top-scored with 84, only seven of which were made on Sunday, while captain Joe Root contributed a committed 48, but the momentum never really left the Proteas.
Kagiso Rabada claimed four for 103, Anrich Nortje three for 56 and there was sound support from Vernon Philander, Maharaj and Dwaine Pretorius.