England's bowlers held their nerve in the face of a supremely gutsy 141 from their habitual nemesis, Graeme Smith, to steer their side into the Champions Trophy semi-final with a game to spare, thanks to a thrilling 22-run victory over the hosts, South Africa, in Centurion. Chasing a hefty 324 after a pair of exceptional innings from Owais Shah and Eoin Morgan, Smith forced England to battle every step of the way, and at 206 for 3 with 14 overs to go, a crushing reversal was not out of the question. However, James Anderson put the game safe with the nerveless figures of 3 for 42 in ten overs, and when Smith himself was ninth man out with 19 balls remaining, South Africa had to face up once more to the ignominy of exiting a global tournament on home soil at the very first hurdle.
It was a startling contest that continued the unlikeliest revival in international cricket. With one shock result already notched up against Sri Lanka, England entered this crunch contest with such confidence that not even the late withdrawal of their wicketkeeper, Matt Prior, could rattle their resolve. A similar scenario in the fourth Ashes Test at Headingley had been the prelude to an England meltdown, but on this occasion, the team took the upheaval in their stride - not least Morgan, who stepped in as a makeshift deputy, and conferred a Gilchristian touch to his batting to convert an already formidable total into an insuperable one, with a breathtaking 67 from 34 balls.
The most revelatory performance of the day, however, was that of the eventual Man of the Match, Shah. Throughout a fraught campaign against Australia, his main failing appeared to be a severe attack of nerves, but having eased himself into the competition with a slow but steady 44 in the victory over Sri Lanka, he launched himself into top gear with a brilliant 98 from 89 balls that included five fours and six sixes - five of which came in a 13-ball onslaught in those habitually stagnant middle overs.
After 29 overs, England were handily paced on 146 for 2, with Andrew Strauss and Joe Denly falling early, but not before they had demonstrated the placid nature of the wicket by picking off eight boundaries in the first nine overs. But the acceleration, when it came, was dramatic. Paul Collingwood, who anchored England's performance with 82 from 94 balls, signalled the charge by pulling Roelof van der Merwe over midwicket for six, whereupon Shah, who had just brought up his half-century from a measured 63 deliveries, crashed 45 runs from his last 21 balls.
Five of Shah's sixes were carted over midwicket, and one, from van der Merwe, was lofted over long-off, and such was his dominance, there seemed no way on earth that he would not record his second ODI century, and England's first since Strauss's losing effort in Guyana in March. But instead of sticking to his long-handled onslaught, Shah attempted a cute dink into the leg-side off Johan Botha, but the ball ballooned unluckily off his pad-flap, and into the hands of Mark Boucher, to bring to an end a third-wicket stand of 163.
Morgan, however, picked up where his team-mate had left off, reverse-lapping van der Merwe through third man for four before larupping Botha back over his head for a massive six. England called for the Powerplay in the 42nd over, and though Parnell accounted for Collingwood with a slower ball, Morgan was picking every variation as the innings drew to a close, cracking four fours and five sixes in total, with a versatility of shot selection that no Englishman other than Kevin Pietersen could hope to match.
Regardless of the size of the target, England knew they could afford no margin for error - their record at defending 300-plus targets is a notable Achilles heel, while South Africa have tasted success when it comes to chasing massive run-chases. In March 2006 they overhauled Australia's world-record 434 in a never-to-be-forgotten chase at the Wanderers, and seeing as the main men on that occasion, Smith and Herschelle Gibbs, were opening the batting this time around, there was enough on display for the packed crowd to continue to believe.
Anderson dismissed Gibbs early on, but not before he had taken a shine to Graham Onions' new-ball offerings, while Stuart Broad persuaded Jacques Kallis to pull a short ball down the throat of Denly at square leg. But when Collingwood, at point, dropped de Villiers on 3 in Luke Wright's first over, Smith found a hard-hitting ally in whom he could trust, and South Africa set about their pursuit with gusto.
Graeme Swann entered the attack in the 21st over, but was swept with power for consecutive fours to bring up a run-a-ball half-century. On 59, however, Smith survived a bona fide let-off when Morgan, the stand-in wicketkeeper, failed to gather a scrambling stumping opportunity, and on 82, he was handed an even more culpable let-off when Shah at mid-on dropped an absolute sitter, a chipped drive off the persevering Collingwood, whose canny offcutters had already extracted de Villiers for 35, courtesy of a hoicked pull to deep midwicket.
With 20 overs to go, South Africa still required a hefty 159 to win with three wickets down, which would be a stiff equation even for a Twenty20 international. Onions returned to the attack with a much improved length, as Smith inside-edged millimetres past his leg stump before surviving an exceptionally tight appeal for lbw in his next over. But when Wright was brought back for his fifth over he was cut firmly through third man for South Africa's first boundary for 63 balls, and suitably liberated, Smith punched his next delivery from Onions down the ground to go to 96. Collingwood was brought back to halt the flow, but Smith crunched him past point to bring up his hundred from 104 balls, a fabulously paced innings that left England with deep creases in their brows.
One over later, however, and England were right back in the hunt, thanks to a wonderfully deceptive over from Swann that pinned Duminy to the crease for four precious dot-balls before plucking out his leg stump with a last-ball arm-ball. Though Broad returned to the action with a muddled sixth over that leaked ten runs, Anderson responded by plucking out Boucher's off stump with the first ball of his final spell, and as he and Swann kept the dangerous Albie Morkel under wraps, the asking rate climbed into double-figures.
South Africa claimed the batting Powerplay with 86 runs needed from 48 balls, and the initial result was explosive, as Morkel broke his shackles to launch the struggling Broad for ten in two balls, including a towering six straight back down the ground. But Smith by this stage was suffering visibly from cramp, and when Strauss belied his recently earned reputation for sportsmanship by refusing to allow him a runner, the upshot was predictable. Morkel called for an ambitious bye when Morgan fumbled behind the stumps, but a subsequent direct hit sent him on his way for 17.
With the run-rate spiralling out of control, Johan Botha fell two balls later for a duck, and though Smith gritted his teeth to slap Broad for five fours in two overs, the cause was already lost. Van der Merwe had his stumps splattered by the superb Anderson, also for a duck, and when Smith skied an attempted pull to midwicket, Shah steadied himself to take the chance that effectively killed the contest. As England continued their unexpectedly joyous end-of-season romp, South Africa, once again, were left to contemplate their inability to front up on the big occasion.