There was to be no fairy-tale finish. No bowing out in style from the one-day format he has graced but now feels he has to give up because he cannot keep on giving his all for England.
Just a desperately disappointing anti-climax that saw Ben Stokes fail with ball and bat on his home ground in another heavy 62 run defeat for the once mighty England white-ball side.
The stage had appeared to be set for Stokes to finish on the high his 50-over career deserved on the ground where he first set out on the rollercoaster journey that has seen him become England’s talisman and now their Test captain.
Rassie van der Dussen hit a brilliant hundred as South Africa beat England on Tuesday
Ben Stokes failed with the ball and bat in his final one-day international for England
But Stokes just could not deliver in front of a devoted Durham crowd who endured rather than enjoyed the occasion because of the extreme heat that left them exposed in open Durham stands that were not built with 37 degree heat in mind.
Stokes led England out to a standing ovation, earned loud cheers when he came onto bowl and gave his last England 50-over cap to a young boy in the crowd as he left the field after 50-overs of hard toil in conditions surely never before seen in this part of the world.
But it was when Stokes was out, plumb lbw trying to reverse sweep, for just five off 11 balls that the full emotion of a decision he believes has been forced upon him by the demands of the international schedule finally hit him.
Stokes was out lbw and walked off for the final time to a huge ovation at his home ground
Stokes walked slowly off after wisely deciding not to review Richard Kettleborough’s decision, acknowledged the applause of a stoic crowd that rose to him and glanced towards his family and friends as he left the 50-over field for the last time.
With him, in effect, went England’s chances in another big setback for the new management team of Jos Buttler and Matthew Mott as South Africa followed India in defeating an England white-ball team that suddenly seem to be stuck in transition.
The day got off to a bad start when another local man in Matthew Potts only lasted eight overs on his one-day international debut before he was forced to leave the field suffering from the effects of the heat. His four wicketless overs had cost 33.
There was an understandable lethargy about England in the field, with extra drinks breaks consumed under large parasols, that was matched in the stands where hundreds of spectators left their seats desperately seeking shade or joining long queues for water.
But one player who kept his cool was Rassie van der Dussen, the in-form man of the South African line-up with an average of 73 in 50-over cricket since the start of 2021.
Opener Janneman Malan ensured South Africa got off to a positive start in Durham
Van der Dussen came in and played a full array of shots from the start of his innings
Aiden Markram played a number of powerful cut shots during his innings of 77
His was very much an old-school one-day innings, with no sixes and only 10 fours coming in his 134, but it was no less important for that as England struggled in the heat.
A re-jigged England bowling line-up, with the star of the series against India in Reece Topley rested to manage his workload, was pretty much powerless to resist as Van der Dussen added 151 with Aiden Markram for the third wicket.
Not least the subdued figure of Stokes, who said it was ‘unsustainable’ to carry on playing in all formats when he announced his shock retirement from one-day cricket and proved it by struggling through five expensive, impotent overs.
Only when Van der Dussen had reached 121 did he offer the semblance of a chance but he was reprieved by a rare misjudgment from Jonny Bairstow at deep mid-wicket.
It did not prove too expensive as Liam Livingstone, called up as third spinner in the England line-up to cover for the absence of Potts, dismissed both South Africa’s leading runscorers in the same over as they pushed hard for late runs.
Liam Livingstone managed to dismiss van der Dussen and Markram in the same over
That Livingstone double coupled with good death bowling from another local bowler in Brydon Carse, who took one for 12 in his last two overs, kept South Africa down to 333 for five, which was probably par, but it was still their largest 50-over total in England.
It was not long ago England would have been far from daunted by chasing such a total but, for now at least, they have lost their white-ball batting mojo as they re-group without their legendary captain in Eoin Morgan and now Stokes.
Jason Roy did hit the first six of the match off Keshav Maharaj but still looks far from the dominant force of England’s World Cup winners of old and struggled for timing in an opening stand of 102 with Bairstow that took 19 overs.
Bairstow was better in producing something like his Test form in making 63 off 71 balls, being badly dropped by Lungi Ngidi on 50, but once the spin of Markram dismissed both him and then Stokes the game was almost up for England.
England opener Jonny Bairstow continued his good form before he was dismissed for 63
Joe Root also got back among the runs as he scored 86 before he chopped onto his stumps
Anrich Nortje finished with four wickets, all of which came in the last two of his overs
South Africa had to make a concussion change when Andile Phehlukwayo came off worse from a collision with Maharaj – the captain’s shoulder on Phehlukwayo’s chin would have earned a red card in rugby – and had to be replaced by Dwaine Pretorius.
But it did nothing to unsettle South Africa as England fell 62 runs short with only Joe Root taking them anywhere near respectability with a late flurry that brought him 86.
So defeat in the first of three one-day internationals to follow defeats in both the Twenty20 and one-day series against India. And now England have lost their most important player for one half of their white-ball rebuild.
They have much to do in a form of the game they have dominated for seven years, starting in the second 50-over match at Old Trafford on Friday.