England pay for Wile E. Coyote moment
It felt like a case of one step forward, two steps back for England. Or perhaps that should be two steps forward, three steps back, after they became only the fourth side to be defeated in an ODI series having taken a 2-0 lead. Football sages sometimes call that the most dangerous scoreline and so it proved for England.
Was there an element of complacency about letting their advantage slip? A week ago, ahead of the Centurion match, Reece Topley was boldly discussing England's chances of wrapping up the series and then pushing on for 5-0. AB de Villiers' assessment that the tourists "look confident but not unbeatable" turned out to be more shrewd.
England's one-day revival over the last nine months has not been merely a confidence trick but their uninhibited approach, particularly with the bat, is clearly founded on a fearless approach to failure. Given the cultural reboot that Eoin Morgan and Trevor Bayliss have been trying to effect, it makes sense to nurture that mentality, even if it leads to the sort of spluttering efforts that undermined England in the last two matches.
"No surrender!" has become a war cry for a team that regularly used to run up the white flag in limited-overs cricket. The Road Runner approach has allowed for totals such as the 399 for 9 England racked up in Bloemfontein - following on from their first 400-plus total, against New Zealand at Edgbaston, last year - but they have occasionally been left looking more like Wile E. Coyote, running out over the cliff edge, legs whirring on thin air.
Crash landings are the inevitable corollary. Being dismissed twice without seeing out their overs - there were 13 deliveries unbowled in Johannesburg and 30 in the Cape Town decider - might well have cost England the series but Morgan had already set out his thinking back in June, when his side were bowled out for 302 in 45.2 overs at the Ageas Bowl and lost by three wickets to New Zealand.
"It's not a huge thing for me that we have to bat 50 overs, it doesn't disappoint me," Morgan said afterwards. "We're trying to change our process and mindset with the bat, which may take time."
England of course went on to beat New Zealand and followed that up with a narrow defeat against the World Champions, Australia - having threatened to come back from 2-0 down themselves - and victory over Pakistan in the UAE. If Adil Rashid had held on to a relatively straightforward chance off Chris Morris at the Wanderers on Friday evening, Morgan would surely have been celebrating a third series win out of four.
Fielding was the area Bayliss chose to focus on after de Villiers stepped into the breach to lead his side home at Newlands. But while it seems neither coach nor captain will be tempering England's attacking instincts with the bat, part of the learning process must be about recognising when to exercise a little self-denial and play the situation as well as the ball.
Eking out a dozen more runs in Johannesburg, where England lost by one wicket, could have been decisive, while soft dismissals for Moeen Ali, Chris Woakes and Rashid in Cape Town - with plenty of time left to bat and Alex Hales looking assured at the other end - did not bear the hallmark of smart cricket. Sometimes a tactical retreat is preferable to a rout.
England are intent on sticking with their new philosophy - there is no zealot like a convert, after all - and the hope is that such skirmishes will harden them for the real challenge of ODI tournaments to come, firstly in next year's Champions Trophy and then the 2019 World Cup.
In the meantime, questions of personnel and team balance will come to the fore. Hales had a watershed series and may soon feel as comfortable as an ODI opener as he does in T20s; Jason Roy was less successful, after encouraging returns against Australia and Pakistan, but Joe Root's prodigious form at No. 3 made the top order appear blast proof. Hales and Root were involved in 50-plus partnerships in every match but, a Jos Buttler hundred and twin fifties for Ben Stokes aside, the rest of the batting was fitful.
Morgan's own dip in form was significant but, after averaging 58.00 since June until the start of the South Africa series, it need not be alarming. History has shown that it does not take much for Morgan to click back into form and a score in either of the last two ODIs could also have been the difference between defeat and victory.
Should England be trying to find room for another specialist batsman, such as James Taylor? Can Stokes translate his indisputably titanic potential as a Test player into the white-ball formats? These will be questions for when Sri Lanka arrive at the start of the English season.
Some of the issues with the batting are bound up with the composition of the bowling attack and England may need to question whether conditions - in South Africa or England - support playing two spinners. Moeen and Rashid were England's most economical bowlers in this series but neither fulfilled a particularly attacking role (Moeen took five wickets at 47.00, Rashid five at 45.40); Moeen also appears to have regressed with the bat, having averaged 13.77 from 13 innings with a highest score of 21 since moving down from opener to No. 7.
The absence of Steven Finn and, to a lesser extent, Mark Wood and Liam Plunkett through injury was another factor. England's seam bowling lacked for express pace and Woakes, Stuart Broad, Chris Jordan and David Willey each managed a sole wicket apiece. Teams have begun to prioritise wicket-taking above economy in these heady times but England failed to dismiss South Africa over the five matches - nine down in Johannesburg being the closest they came.
Plenty for England's gurus to pick through then but the ground still appears fertile. Vital signs of maturity, too, in the development of Hales and Topley, as well as the measured way victory was achieved in Port Elizabeth. From 2-0 up to 3-2 down sounds like something perpetrated by the hapless England of old but recent experience tells us things could be far worse.
Just over a year ago, they were starting a World Cup campaign that ranks alongside the Battle of Balaclava and the Darien Scheme as synonyms for failure. There were bound to be bumps on the long road back.
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick