England’s tour of South Africa was edging towards an ignominious end after their top order faltered again in the final Test at Centurion.
Set a record 382 for victory or a more realistic target of batting out for a draw, the tourists, who have already won the series, lost Alastair Cook, Alex Hales and Nick Compton in 21 awkward overs before stumps.
They will start day five on 52 for three hoping for either an intervention from the weather or a 90-over rearguard led by Joe Root and James Taylor (both 19no).
In a country where the highest successful fourth-innings chase is 336, made by Australia in 1950, and a venue where the record is 251 (made in the tainted Hansie Cronje Test of 2000), AB de Villiers appeared overly cautious in leaving his declaration until rain arrived in the evening session. But having allowed Hashim Amla (96) and Temba Bavuma (78no) to bat on, his side still finished the day heavily in credit.
England began their innings in less-than-perfect conditions, with floodlights on under murky skies, and were soon in trouble.
Hales has had a tougher tour than most at opener and his woes continued when Kagiso Rabada got one to keep low and trap him lbw for one.
That was his sixth score below 20 in eight innings and he will be eyeing the summer schedule uncertainly.
Cook has scarcely fared better, though his exit for five owed more to an act of excellence than a quirk of the pitch – Morne Morkel showing great reactions to grab a sharp return catch left-handed.
Compton’s dismissal to Rabada was an error of judgement on two fronts, first in driving hard outside off stump and second in wasting a review having edged it.
Dane Piedt twice went close to adding Root, Quinton de Kock missing a stumping on 10 and a DRS lbw review going in the Yorkshireman’s favour.
South Africa began the day on 42 for one, already 175 in front, but England made the early running.
James Anderson has had a series to forget, but he struck swiftly this time, Stephen Cook tempted forward and feathering to Jonny Bairstow, and De Villiers lasting just two balls.
The crucial delivery clocked in at 86mph, not enough to beat De Villiers on speed alone, but it was perfectly-pitched.
The batsman reviewed the lbw decision but it merely confirmed his second duck of the match and third in a row since taking the captaincy.
Having made nought only four times in his previous 172 Test innings, De Villiers may be giving strong consideration to handing on the reins.
England were buoyant but hit a brick wall in Hashim Amla and JP Duminy.
They put on 57 vital runs, extending the fourth innings chase bit by bit, in 20 solid overs.
Amla appeared well at ease, soaking up balls until seeing one he fancied and stroking it to the ropes.
Duminy took 18 of his 29 runs off Moeen Ali but paid for a mistimed drive at Stokes with a thick edge behind.
The middle session effectively saw both sides maintain a holding pattern.
The England attack bowled diligently to defensive fields and, for the most part, Amla and Bavuma settled for gentle accumulation.
Neither batsman upped the ante, though Moeen and Chris Woakes proved less able to apply the brakes than Anderson, Stuart Broad and Stokes.
While England saw their hopes of victory recede as time went on, the lack of tempo from the batsmen was hard to understand.
Minor milestones ticked by – the 300 lead, South Africa’s 200, Bavuma’s second Test 50 – and to some surprise the innings continued after tea.
Even Amla’s dismissal by Broad, four short of a second ton of the match, did not bring the declaration, although a passing shower finally did.