South Africa levelled the one-day series with a resounding seven-wicket victory at Trent Bridge after England's batting had subsided to a collection of poor strokes. The visitors wobbled briefly in their chase, but Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers put the quality of what had gone before in the shade with the classiest batting of the day in an unbroken stand of 169 for the fourth wicket.
In keeping with the trend of the series it was not a gripping contest the match was completed well before the scheduled time. At least that meant the spectators did not have to sit through the autumnal chill. Day/night cricket is not made for an English September. The one period where the game did spark into life was the start of the chase when South Africa were reduced to 14 for 3, but it was a short-lived high point for England who were as poor as they were in Southampton. It must be hoped Andy Flower was not watching the TV on his rare day off.
The performance will again raise questions about England's ability to set defendable targets, where they appear significantly less comfortable than knowing what they have to chase. Only Ian Bell, who fell lbw to Robin Peterson when the left-arm spinner was smartly given the new ball, can be said to have not gifted his wicket away and 28 balls of the innings were unused when Jade Dernbach wafted at Wayne Parnell rather than at least trying to stick around with Chris Woakes who has significant pedigree as a batsman.
With so few runs on the board England's only chance was to run through South Africa and for a short while it looked possible. Graeme Smith flashed to second slip, where James Tredwell held the catch with a juggle, then James Anderson collected a brace in a superb display of pacey swing bowling.
Faf du Plessis, who has had a lean series, was the latest option to be tried at No. 3 but edged a rising delivery to Craig Kieswetter then Dean Elgar was given a working over. Showing exemplary control of the ball, Anderson probed away at Elgar's outside edge before the left hander could not resist pushing at one.
Amla, though, was not being shifted and this time had not even been offered a life. He had to be on his guard against Anderson and Dernbach, but without Steven Finn, who picked up a back injury, England did not quite have the pace resources to maintain the pressure although Woakes did find Amla's edge only for it fall well short of slip.
De Villiers had not scored an international fifty on the tour but got himself going with a back-foot drove, then drilled Anderson through mid-on before back-to-back pulls off Dernbach. The introduction of spin brought aggression from Amla as he drove both Samit Patel and Tredwell for boundaries - the latter with an effortless loft over mid-off - and the match was back under South Africa's control.
Amla reached his latest half-century from 63 balls and de Villiers moved through the 40s with a string of trademark drives straight and through cover. As England's intensity dropped runs came at a canter and, in the blink of an eye, Amla finished with 97 to his name. His tour-de-force shows no signs of halting as he ends the series with 335 runs - the next best was Bell with 181.
This was just England's second defeat of the year in 50-over cricket - and a drawn series against South Africa is no disgrace - but it will leave a bitter taste for Alastair Cook that it was handed away so easily on a plate. South Africa's bowlers - seven of them were used as de Villiers juggled his options effectively - shared around the wicket-taking.
The biggest bonus for them, especially in light of strengthening the batting, were the scalps taken by part-time spinners JP Duminy and Faf du Plessis. The stuffing was knocked out of the innings as England gifted away three wickets in six overs after Cook and Jonny Bairstow had started a recovery from 24 for 2 with one of the early losses that of the struggling Ravi Bopara for a second-ball duck. Bairstow, who had replaced the injured Jonathan Trott, could not have picked out deep square-leg with more precision when he flicked Morne Morkel off his pads straight to Justin Ontong.
Then in the next over, Duminy's first, Eoin Morgan tried to clear mid-on and offered a simple catch and England's most dynamic one-day player had gone without scoring. Moments after the halfway mark of the innings it got worse for England when Cook, having reached a steady fifty from 69 balls, punched a low full toss back to du Plessis also in his first over to leave the home side tottering on 99 for 5.
There was little option but to just try and bat out the innings, but each time a partnership was starting to form, a lose shot gave it away. Patel got into a tangle against a slower-ball bouncer from Dale Steyn - who bowled beautifully throughout - and gloved a catch to the keeper while Kieswetter, after showing promising signs, tried to clear the infield in the Powerplay but could only sky a catch to mid-off.
The generous nature of the batting continued with Tredwell missing a charge at Peterson and Anderson trying to launch him down the ground first ball and did not get further than mid-off. It suggested that minds were not entirely focussed.
However, there is no doubt who has the most frazzled mind of England's batsmen right now. Bopara had been promoted to No. 3 in the absence of Trott and, after leaving his first delivery from Steyn, was drawn into pushing at his next and edging to de Villiers. It was a good delivery, moving away late from the right hander, but Bopara did not offer much footwork and it was a carbon copy of his previous two dismissals, meaning he ends the series with scores of 16, 0, 6 and 0. He, more than anyone, needs a change of fortunes in the Twenty20 series.