Anrich Nortje, Sisanda Magala engineer England's demise
Jason Roy's resurgent century had threatened to cancel out Rassie van der Dussen's ton
South Africa 298 for 7 (van der Dussen 111, Miller 53, Curran 3-35) beat England 271 (Roy 113, Malan 59, Nortje 4-62, Magala 3-46) by 27 runs
Just when the ODI format was back to being maligned for its lack of entertainment, South Africa and England showed there was plenty of life in 50-over cricket with a belter in Bloemfontein. An undulating encounter was eventually taken by the Proteas, who rallied in the second half of the first of this three-match series to triumph by 27 runs.
Having posted 298 for 7 batting first, they found themselves almost out of the game when England's openers put on 146 for the first wicket in 19.2 overs. Jason Roy's 113 looked to have cancelled out Rassie van der Dussen's 111 earlier in the piece. But Sisanda Magala's 3 for 46 reeled the visitors back before speed demon Anrich Nortje's 4 for 62 knocked them down to claim a famous victory.
Nortje could have had a maiden five-wicket haul had he not overstepped when Adil Rashid flapped a short ball to first slip. Nevertheless, victory puts South Africa that little bit closer to this year's 50-over World Cup, with one out of five must-wins to confirm their place in the competition sealed in emphatic fashion.
Roy's hundred in pursuit of a target of 299 had nourishing qualities beyond what looked to be a certain result in his team's favour. The Surrey opener's form had been waning, across a lean spell in both limited-overs codes, which led to an axing on the eve of England's successful T20 World Cup campaign.
Coming into this series and his 111th ODI, the previous 14 white-ball innings for his country had produced an average of 16.9. Mixed in with averages of 8.50 for Oval Invincibles and 12.50 for Paarl Royals in The Hundred and SA20 respectively, the conversation had shifted from poor form to wondering if the 32-year-old was a spent force.
Therefore you could understand the outpouring of emotion - part relief, part fury - when he swivel-pulled Nortje for four to move to three figures, becoming only the fourth to register 11 one-day hundreds. The 14 boundaries up to then - three of them sixes - reflected a return to the form that made him such a key part of England's white-ball revolution leading into the 2019 World Cup success.
Alas, it was from Roy's demise that things began to turn back the way of the Proteas. England required 104 from 20.5 overs, with skipper Jos Buttler set at the crease. But when he fell to a sharp leg cutter for 36 and David Willey was caught off a top edge - both to Nortje - the game had flipped. Sam Curran was nicked off by Kagiso Rabada before Nortje returned to remove Jofra Archer for his final wicket.
It was left to Tabraiz Shamsi to complete the victory with a caught-and-bowled two deliveries into his sixth over. That in itself typified the turnaround - the left-arm wrist spinner had been destroyed for 55 in his first five.
South Africa's 298 for 7 looked a par score at the time, and just about proved as much. A second century against England for van der Dussen, supplemented by 53 from David Miller seemed to have them well set at the halfway stage. Yet the innings had a whiff of failing to launch at points.
An opening stand of 61 between Quinton de Kock and skipper Temba Bavuma, who had won the toss, contributed to a Powerplay of 75 for 1 - higher than England's 56 in the first 10 overs of their chase. They were then 171 for 3 in the 31st over with Heinrich Klassen looking to make hay, only to fall leg-before to Adil Rashid.
Even with the twin spin threats of Rashid and Moeen Ali applying the brakes with pace off the ball, van der Dussen and Miller found themselves with license to swing in the final throes. However, after Archer's ninth over, the 47th overall, was carted for 20, only 18 were managed from as many deliveries to the end, thanks to some exemplary death bowling from Curran who accounted for both established batters.
Any jeopardy as far as the result was concerned had almost halved by the time Malan skied a delivery off seamer Magala, playing just his fourth ODI and first since January 2022. England's openers had already picked off 146 in the 20th over, with 153 remaining from 30.3 when No. 3 Ben Duckett arrived to the crease in his first appearance in the format since November 2016.
Tension ramped up once Duckett was caught behind for 3 - Nortje's first - and Harry Brook bagged a duck on ODI debut for Magala's second. All in, the top-order collapse was 3 for 6 across 12 balls.
By that stage, Roy had 85 from 64: what tentativeness there was at the start of his knock, with skews and the odd reach, had been replaced by towering heaves and crisp drives. Liberated by the comfort brought by a first half-century in eight innings since his unbeaten 101 against Netherlands last June, he continued to assert himself.
It should have been a match-winning knock, but South Africa's bowlers rallied superbly, particularly Magala who had the unenviable task of starting his spell in the 18th over, during the height of the opening carnage. Along with his accuracy which produced an economy rate of 5.11, his slippery bouncer proved incisive for his return.
By contrast, it was a chastening return for Archer after 678 days out of the international fray. England's 2019 Super Over hero conceded 81 from his 10 overs, but did at least pick up a dismissal when Wayne Parnell struck him to backward point.
Archer's participation after two years of battling stress fractures of the elbow and back was a boost in itself. That England threw away victory is far more of a concern for Buttler and head coach Matthew Mott to consider.
Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo