The last time a series in South Africa stayed alive until the final match, Herschelle Gibbs stunned the world by leading the assault on Australia's 434 in Johannesburg. More than a year later he responded to another crunch situation - though New Zealand didn't set quite as stiff a target at Newlands - with another breathtaking hundred, one that continued South Africa's unbeaten streak in ODI series at home since 2001-02.
A target of 239 can be tricky if approached tentatively; Gibbs was anything but. His performance was so commanding it almost overshadowed that of Graeme Smith, his partner in a 173-run stand for the first wicket that should have ensured a comfortable victory. There was a hint of a choke as the run-rate dropped sharply after Gibbs was dismissed - the second wicket to fall, with the score at 187 - but Mark Boucher and Shaun Pollock eventually completed the victory with 28 balls to spare.
The groundwork, however, had been laid by a disciplined bowling effort. South Africa made one change to the side that lost at Port Elizabeth and brought in Dale Steyn for Albie Morkel, a decision that paid immediate dividends. New Zealand found few scoring opportunities as a succession of fast bowlers, maintaining relentless line and length, and excellent fielding stifled the run-rate. That New Zealand reached a competitive target, allowing their bowlers an outside chance of claiming their first series win in South Africa, was primarily due to Mathew Sinclair, who scored his first fifty against this opposition.
The element of competition, however, vanished after the lunch break. Gibbs had made a duck and dropped a crucial catch in Port Elizabeth but he more than made up for it today. His initial runs came on the leg side through flicks and on-drives because New Zealand's fast bowlers were too straight but soon he was hitting all parts of the Newlands boundary. The strongest statement on intent came when he stepped out and lofted Kyle Mills straight for the first of seven sixes.
Any tactics Daniel Vettori employed came to nothing. He used as many as six bowlers within the first 15 overs but Gibbs attacked everyone in his path. Brendon McCullum came up to the stumps to prevent Gibbs from stepping out but he responded by pulling and sweeping Jacob Oram for sixes over midwicket while standing firmly in his crease. Even spin failed to slow him down; Vettori went for 12 off his first two overs and Jeetan Patel for 30 off his first three. Gibbs raced towards his 19th hundred and got there by lofting Gillespie to the cover boundary off his 77th delivery.
Watching the spectacle from the other end was Smith. He struggled early on but, as the run-rate soared, it relieved the pressure on him and he took his time to get settled. The contrast between the two innings was evident when Smith cover-drove Gillespie for his first boundary in the 21st over. By that time the Newlands crowd had cheered nine fours and half-a-dozen sixes from Gibbs' bat.
Smith eventually fell for 51 and Gibbs, after deflating New Zealand with 119 off 101 balls, followed soon after but their partnership had set a near-perfect platform for victory.
The emphatic batting performance followed an impeccable bowling effort. Pollock set the tone with his first spell -18 off seven overs - and ensured that runs came at a trickle while Steyn pounded in from the other end. Steyn vindicated his selection by dismissing Brendon McCullum in his first over and accounted for Lou Vincent with a perfect slow yorker that uprooted leg stump.
New Zealand strove to consolidate but the support act of Andre Nel and Charl Langeveldt did not let up during the middle overs. They strangled New Zealand's batsman of the series, Jamie How, who after scoring 14 off his first 18 balls could score only one off the next 14 before his dismissal. Such was South Africa's discipline that New Zealand managed only 27 runs off the second and third Powerplays and sorely lacked momentum at 88 for 4 after 25 overs.
Styris' 60 and a useful 34 from Jacob Oram propped New Zealand up in the middle overs but they too perished when they attempted to clear the boundary. It was left to Sinclair to take New Zealand to a fighting total. He found the boundary with a flurry of pulls, sweeps past short fine leg and cover drives and was largely responsible for the 77 runs that New Zealand scored off the final ten overs.
The target of 239 was more than what New Zealand looked like getting at one stage but it was nowhere near enough against a rampant Gibbs, whose century even insured against a minor blip after his dismissal.