The logic of England's World Cup campaign veers once again towards the ludicrous. Four agonisingly enthralling fixtures have resulted in a victory that deserved to be a defeat, a tie that should have been a victory, a defeat that no-one could believe was not a victory, and now a victory that was snatched from the jaws of defeat. The tombola of emotions that their campaign has inspired has been responsible for roughly 70% of the interest in the whole of the 2011 World Cup. But this time, surely, they've done enough to end the immediate uncertainty, and guarantee their progression through to the last eight.

It has been, however, a devastatingly close-run thing, every bit as marginal as the eight runs out of 2256 that have enabled them to cling onto their positive Net Run Rate. But regardless of all that, for a short time on Sunday afternoon, while India were still working on their run-chase in Bangalore, England sat healthily at the top of the Group B table, looking at last like the big-cheese team they were always meant to be in this competition.

"This puts us back on track in the World Cup and it couldn't come a day too soon," said England's relieved captain, Andrew Strauss. "It was a cliffhanger of a game, we're certainly keeping people interested at the moment, but we're delighted with the win and we have high hopes of achieving a great thing. We still need to learn some lessons, but we got away with a win and a win is all you need to kick-start things and get it going."

All the same, had South Africa's tail managed to cobble together six more singles from the 14 deliveries left at their disposal, England would have slunk to a lowly and precarious fourth in Group B, with their forthcoming trip to Chittagong infused with the peculiar dread that has paralysed them in each of their games against supposedly lesser teams. But in a contest that reverted to a Test-match scenario from the moment Graeme Swann ripped a beauty past Graeme Smith's edge to confirm the treachery in the wicket, a long-suppressed knowhow flooded back into England's game.

Suddenly an attack that had been flogged at seven runs an over in the opening fortnight made a run every other ball look like riches. Giving absolutely nothing away had been the secret of their glory in the Ashes, when the leaky Steven Finn was shelved after Perth to be replaced by Tim Bresnan, and that same policy proved impeccable in another fraught and thrilling scenario. Strauss, whose tactics have erred in previous games in this campaign, played a limited hand to perfection, trusting his second-string spinners, Michael Yardy and Kevin Pietersen, to hold the fort at a time when the occasional loose ball would not be ruinous, before reverting to his gun bowlers and demanding they aim barrel-straight.

When pressed on the state of the wicket, Strauss admitted it had broken up too much to be ideal for a one-day international, but there's little doubt he was happier in these surroundings than had been the case back in Bangalore, on a belter of a pitch that may have allowed him to touch personal perfection during his 158 against India, but which blunted the bowlers that had previously turned England into one-day challengers. In the past decade, England have won only 50% of the 18 ODIs in which they have posted 300 or more, a statistic that underlines their unfamiliarity with such high-scoring jousts.

A dogfight is much more befitting this outfit. England are on their chinstraps as their never-ending winter moves into its sixth month, but there may yet be a method to their current madness. Adrenaline is one of many substances on WADA's listed of banned stimulants, but there's nothing in the rules that says you can't create your own. By living on the edge, England are alive in the competition full-stop. And a month that had threatened to be as mundane as was the case back in 1996 (when England sleepwalked to the quarter-finals only to be rudely awoken by Sanath Jayasuriya and Sri Lanka) has been as overloaded with action thrillers as Tim Bresnan's DVD collection.

"Adrenaline is one of many substances on WADA's listed of banned stimulants, but there's nothing in the rules that says you can't create your own. By living on the edge, England are alive in the competition full-stop."

It's stretching credibility to pretend it's all part of a cunning plan, but just as Pakistan have long been renowned for their ability to peak precisely when no-one expects it, so England are now firmly in that bracket - and no opponent in their right minds would wish to encounter either in the knockouts. Not so long ago, England's one-day cricket was universally condemned for being dull and one-dimensional, but when James Anderson (9.5-0-91-1) and Stuart Broad (9-0-73-0) can bounce back from personal nadirs to record combined figures of 12.4-0-31-6, such labels can safely be consigned to World Cup history.

England will know that improvements can and must be made. Paul Collingwood's form made his omission unavoidable, but on this evidence, Yardy might not keep him out forever, given that he lacks the strength to find the boundary on good decks and the versatility to work the singles on tough ones, as his 3 from 17 balls showed today. More worryingly, his left-arm spin is proving far too leaky on all surfaces - it's no good conceding six runs an over as standard in ODIs, even if 4-0-24-1 is an exceptional spell in a Twenty20 spell. Despite the vital wicket of South Africa's anchor tailender, Robin Peterson, he came as close to losing England the game as Swann, Broad and Anderson ultimately took them to winning it.

But overall, England's balance was vastly improved for this fixture, and beyond, thanks in no small part to the arrival of Ravi Bopara, whose Man-of-the-Match-winning 60 provided a classy foil for England's Mr Consistent, Jonathan Trott, whose 52 from 94 balls was arguably his best innings of the tournament to date. The two came together at an invidious 15 for 3, with the onus on survival every bit as much as advancement. This was Test-match cricket, one-day style, and it was just what England needed to remind themselves how good they can be when their minds are forced to remain wholly and solely on the job.