South Africa won the first Test by 107 runs with a day and a bit to spare on Sunday as England fell away quickly after dreaming briefly of another miracle chase.
England were 121-1 overnight facing a target of 376, raising faint hopes of a Headingley repeat, when Ben Stokes led the English to one of test cricket’s most memorable come-from-behind wins in the Ashes series against Australia in August.
But South Africa struck twice in the first session of the fourth day at SuperSport Park, bided their time waiting for the new ball after lunch, and then ran through England taking the last six wickets for 46 runs in 12 overs.
England were all out for 268 and lost nine wickets for 147 on the day.
“We needed that,” said South Africa captain Faf du Plessis, referring to a terrible year for South African cricket that ended on a much-needed high.
South Africa had lost its last five tests and had rushed in a new coaching team led by Mark Boucher to stabilize a struggling ship less than two weeks before the start of the England series.
Behind the scenes, South African cricket is in turmoil with the chief executive of the national board suspended on allegations of misconduct and fellow executives resigning in protest at his leadership.
South Africa were desperate to turn it around, at least on the field.
Newcomer Anrich Nortje led the South African bowling attack with the key wickets of opener Rory Burns for 84 and England captain Joe Root for 48 in his 3-56.
Nortje was playing just his third test.
Spearhead Kagiso Rabada wrapped up the England tail for his 4-103, clattering into Stuart Broad’s stumps to end it before tea.
There are three more Tests to come in the series, with the next in Cape Town starting on Jan. 3.
England showed signs of fight despite a contagious flu-like illness that had quickly worked its way through the squad and support staff in South Africa. At least 10 players fell ill in the buildup and during the game.
Fast bowlers Broad and Jofra Archer, allrounder Stokes, Root and wicketkeeper Jos Buttler all played but were sick at stages. Broad, Archer and Stokes recovered enough from their illnesses to play, although Broad was in bed for nearly a week in the buildup to the test and Stokes left the field on the first day with dehydration. Root and Buttler got sick during the test, missed periods of play, and were put in quarantine at the ground at one point to try and stop the spread of the bug to the other players.
“It's been a really tough week off the field,” Root said. “Pretty much everything has been thrown at the group. But credit to everyone, they stood up, tried to put in the best performance, and at no stage have they let anyone down.”
Burns inspired hope that England might get the 376. But Burns added just seven runs to his overnight score of 77 at SuperSport Park despite batting for nearly an hour on the fourth morning. Tied down by South Africa front-line quicks Rabada and Vernon Philander, he lashed out at a short ball from Nortje — Nortje’s second of the day — and lobbed a catch to Rabada at mid-on.
Stokes arrived with England needing 218 more runs — the same equation as when he strode in at Headingley — but the parallels disappeared when he chopped a delivery from spinner Keshav Maharaj onto his stumps to go for 14.
England’s hopes effectively ended with Root’s nick off Nortje to leave the tourists 232-6.
When James Anderson, playing his 150th test, a record for a bowler, walked in as the last man, he shared a joke with long-time bowling partner Broad and they both smiled widely.
Their last-wicket stand lasted four balls but England appeared surprisingly positive in defeat.
"I think pretty much everyone has been ill now, so hopefully that’s out of the way,” Root said. “Hopefully that's the end of it and we can bounce back strong.”