England batting dismantled by confident South Africa
South Africa 119 for 3 (Kallis 48*, Duminy 47* ) beat England 118 for 7 by seven wickets
This was a flaccid England batting display which will fill them with misgivings ahead of World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka. Ravi Bopara's batting, at least, suggests that he remains scarred by his recent emotional upheavals and the ability of younger batsmen to succeed on turning pitches will be further doubted after the way they were dismantled by a confident South Africa.
South Africa's pursuit of 119 on northern England's version of a slow turner was a stroll in the park and, even though England's new-ball attack created some ersatz excitement by taking 3 for 29 in reply, it did not last long.
The one they needed was Jacques Kallis and, with a single to his name, he edged Steven Finn just short of Alex Hales at first slip. He never faltered again. Kallis and JP Duminy quietly assembled South Africa's highest fourth-wicket partnership in T20s against England in a stand of 90 at a run a ball and a seven-wicket win meandered into view in textbook fashion with an over to spare.
Kallis' timing of the chase was impeccable, one lazy despatching of Jade Dernbach's slower offcutter pronouncing: "I have logged your variations and have now programmed my response." Duminy, drawing confidence from Kallis' presence, ducked and carved alongside him. They won to barely a murmur.
South Africa rested Hashim Amla and his replacement Faf du Plessis, on debut, made only 4 before he was lbw to Finn. There were two wickets for Dernbach, too. But England were roundly outplayed. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the dispute involving Kevin Pietersen, and the issue has not been short of analysis, this England team is weaker for his absence.
If selecting Bopara in his current state is adamant, for him to bat at No. 3 looks increasingly delusional. He took time off last month as he was beset by relationship problems and since his return his batting has been clouded by self doubt. He does not look in a good place.
England are desperate for him to succeed as his bits-and-pieces bowling balances their side, but his troubled batting run continued as he managed only 6 from 11 balls. South Africa brought Dale Steyn into the attack added a slip and Bopara, with a lack of foot movement, edged to first slip. It was adventurous captaincy by AB de Villiers to bring in a slip outside the Powerplay overs, although as Bopara has been repeatedly edging it in this direction for weeks it was perhaps less daring than it appeared.
South Africa's domination did end at Bopara. Presented by a slow Chester-le-Street turner, not too far removed from the surfaces they may encounter in Sri Lanka, Robin Peterson and Johan Botha did not disappoint. They dared to bowl slowly, turned the ball and were backed up by solid fielding.
England's surfeit of one-day internationals against three different opponents this summer had attracted criticism for overkill, but a three-match T20 series had obvious relevance. South Africa are ranked No. 1; England are defending champions with a good recent record. Even the losers in this NatWest Series will feel happier than Australia who now find themselves ranked beneath Ireland.
Craig Kieswetter and Hales are beginning to have the feel of a settled opening partnership for an England side which once famously changed combinations on a whim, but they are still some way from an understanding between the wickets if Hales' run out in the fourth over is any guide.
His enthusiasm for a leg side single as Kieswetter got a thick inside edge was not shared by his partner and Jacques Kallis lumbered in to pick up and hit the non-striker's stumps direct. Hales left the field distraught in his last T20 international when he was dismissed for 99 against West Indies at Trent Bridge. On this occasion he was cursing.
There had been some spin in the preceding women's match - England beating West Indies by eight wickets - but Botha still spun his introductory delivery enough to surprise Kieswetter, who fell lbw.
Kieswetter's six over wide long on against Lonwabo Tsotsobe had been one of the few invigorating moments for England as they reached midway at 64 for 3 and Botha defused their most explosive batsman, Eoin Morgan, as he tried to sweep and dragged on one that kept a little low.
What followed smacked of naivety. England have great faith in Jos Buttler's potential but it is yet to be rewarded. He has had few opportunities and when they do come along, such as on this occasion when half the overs were still unused, he has flattered to deceive. Like Hales, he is unproven against spin and Peterson, bowling markedly slowly, drew him down the pitch and bowled him with ease. Nine England T20s have now brought 36 runs and that is no sort of preparation for a world cup.
Jonny Bairstow, needing to up the pace, plonked Albie Morkel into Botha's hands at deep midwicket and Samit Patel fell in similar fashion against Peterson as Kallis thundered in for a good, low catch at long-on. Only some spirited late forays by Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann, as England took 34 from the last five overs, gave England anything to bowl at. As for Dale Steyn, his four overs conceded only 13.
The limited-overs matches mount up, but once again entertainment was in limited supply at the end of a long season. South Africa rested Hashim Amla and his replacement Faf du Plessis, on debut, made only 4 before he was lbw to Finn. There were two wickets for Dernbach, too, the straightforward approach of Richard Levi silenced at first slip and de Villiers, after two glorious boundaries, edging a little carelessly to the keeper.
Swann's offspin, delayed until the eighth over, at 50 for 3, was chipped around cautiously and the tyro slow left-armer, Danny Briggs, had not been selected. He may be more fortunate at Old Trafford.
David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo