Having turned in an adequate if uninspired bowling performance, enabled partially by turning the tables on South Africa in the coin-tossing department, they found themselves pursuing 227 to win. It was almost like The Oval last week revisited - England were then defending a total of 223 - except that on this occasion conditions for batting hardly eased. The target proved beyond them.
They lost the match by 32 runs and with it the cup they had held since Australia defeated them 3-0 in 1993. That heralded a grim summer for English cricket and, considering the pains to which the selectors have gone to assemble a specialist one- day side, this hardly seems a harbinger of the delights to come. The World Cup is but a year away. Still, better to get the losing run over with now might go the selectorial thinking.
There was an element of controversy in the defeat, England's sixth consecutively and eighth in a row to South Africa. It seemed that Alec Stewart, once more their most authoritative batsman, might have matters in hand after England had fallen to 90 for four with the ball moving around as it had done all day. When he set off for a run from the bowler's end, having recently completed a 75-ball fifty, he might have spotted that it was Jonty Rhodes swooping in from mid-wicket. There was nothing wrong, as usual, with Rhodes' pick-up and throw and, when Mark Boucher whipped off the bails, Stewart walked without waiting for the TV replay.
This seemed to show that the ball had lodged in Boucher's stomach rather than his gloves, but Stewart was already pavilion-bound. It is a matter, perhaps, of who was being more professional, Boucher or Stewart.
That was almost England's last chance, but it was not the cause of their defeat. There was never much fluency in their batting - Alistair Brown came in for Darren Maddy, but how they are missing Graham Thorpe - and when this South African side have their tails up they are not easily overcome. England have problems again.
The team which was rampant in Sharjah a few short months ago when a refreshing, confident captain could do no wrong looked short of ideas and sometimes direction under the clouds of Manchester. When South Africa had lost three wickets before their score had reached 50 in the morning there was the chance for England if not to run through them, then to assert some meaningful pressure.
However, Adam Hollioake was out-manoeuvred by his rival captain, Hansie Cronje, who refused to recognise that South Africa were in a potentially perilous state. He did not rebuild through caution, he kept the board ticking over mercilessly.
If England are looking for something to be optimistic about they can find it in the form of Darren Gough. He took four wickets for the fifth time in limited-overs internationals and, when an intruder ran on to the pitch in the form of a fancy-dressed toucan (he had presumably had rather more than two cans) the Yorkshire fast bowler playfully jumped on his back.
Another important toss this time went England's way. It did not seem quite a case of calling right and winning the match but, given the cloud cover and the effect this has not only on the ball but on the approach of the batsmen, no side would have chosen to bat first. England did not. The psychological edge has a habit of shifting quickly in these circumstances, so it was important to take at least one wicket early. England did.
The anticipated movement, though not demanding a slide rule to measure its angles, duly arrived. Gough immediately worked up a head of steam and, in his second over, no sooner had Gerry Liebenberg played and missed at one that slid past off stump than Gary Kirsten edged low to first slip a ball neatly slanted across him. When Gough had Jacques Kallis caught at the wicket with a beauty which cut off the pitch there was the sense of a bowler properly restored - at least as long as the groin and hamstring continue to behave themselves.
If South Africa were not exactly reeling by the time Mark Ealham took their third wicket with his fourth ball - an lbw verdict that on another day with an umpire in a different mood might not have been forthcoming - they were certainly discomforted.
Cronje eventually went to another elementary catch for Stewart when Chris Lewis, who was probably playing for his international career, got one to lift. The South Africans have learned to play as a unit (they called it a team in the days before cricket squads had as many assistants as players) and the estimable Rhodes immediately took over from Cronje. They batted all the way down in this manner. Lance Klusener bashed 50 in 49 balls to give the tourists rather more than England might have hoped.
England began their pursuit brightly enough. But Brown always looked dodgy in these conditions and eventually poked one, rather half-heartedly for him, to gully. Nick Knight guided Allan Donald to slip - except that Boucher dived to his left and took a smart catch. Nasser Hussain was a tad unfortunately caught behind, a decision which was not wholly convincing, and then Chris Adams, who has not immediately adjusted to the demands at this higher level, was nervously lbw.
Stewart's dismissal was followed by that of Hollioake, nothing if not a fighter, and the rest fell in short order. The measure of their resistance was that Daryll Cullinan took two wickets for 30 having bowled 84 balls in 89 previous one-day internationals.
It was from his bowling that Kallis took a stunning running catch to get rid of Matthew Fleming late on. The Texaco Trophy has gone and England have not seen the last of these wonderfully organised South Africans.
Old Trafford scoreboard
England won toss
G F J Liebenberg lbw b Ealham 39
(131 min, 75 balls, 2 fours; played across swinging ball)
G Kirsten c Adams b Gough 2
(10 min, 11 balls; edged good-length seaming ball to first slip)
J H Kallis c Stewart b Gough 9
(16 min, 15 balls, 1 four; edged lifting ball to wicketkeeper)
D J Cullinan lbw b Ealham 14
(22 min, 18 balls, 3 fours; pushed forward to swinging ball)
*W J Cronje c Stewart b Lewis 35
(57 min, 44 balls, 4 fours; tried to guide lifting ball to third man)
J N Rhodes lbw b Croft 41
(59 min, 46 balls, 2 fours; hit on front pad trying to sweep)
S M Pollock lbw b Croft 3
(12 min, 13 balls; played across line of straight ball)
L Klusener not out 55
(69 min, 49 balls, 5 fours;
M V Boucher b Gough 6
(21 min, 14 balls; swung across line)
P L Symcox b Gough 2
(9 min, 7 balls; beaten by pace of ball clipping off-stump)
A A Donald not out 6
(13 min, 11 balls;
Extras (b2, lb6, w3, nb3) 14
Total (for 9, 214 min, 50 overs) 226
Fall: 1-6 (Kirsten), 2-24 (Kallis), 3-42 (Cullinan), 4-103 (Cronje), 5-130 (Liebenberg), 6-143 (Pollock), 7-166 (Rhodes), 8-189 (Boucher), 9-200 (Symcox).
Bowling: Gough 10-0-35-4 (nb3,w1) (7-0-22-2 3-0-13-2), Lewis 10-1-42- 1 (w1) (5-1-22-0 3-0-14-1 2-0-6-0), Ealham 10-0-34-2 (5-0-21-1 5-0-13- 1), Fleming 8-0-51-0 (w1) (5-0-25-0 3-0-26-0), Croft 10-0-43-2, Hollioake 2-0-13-0 (one spell each).
Progress: 50: 59 min, 83 balls. 100: 102 min, 143 balls. 150: 154 min, 220 balls. 200: 199 min, 281 balls. Klusener's 50: 67 min, 47 balls, 4 fours.
N V Knight c Boucher b Donald 34
(61 min, 49 balls, 5 fours; edged purler to wicketkeeper)
A D Brown c Rhodes b Klusener 13
(24 min, 15 balls, 1 four; tried to guide ball wide of backward point)
A J Stewart run out (Rhodes-Boucher) 52
(113min, 75 balls, 5 fours; suicidal short single to Rhodes)
N Hussainc Boucher b Donald 1
(11 min, 8 balls, edged outswinger to wicketkeeper)
C J Adams lbw b Symcox 3
(18 min, 14 balls; swung across spinning ball)
*A J Hollioake lbw b Pollock 46
(70 min, 63 balls, 5 fours; trapped on crease by inswinger)
M A Ealham b Cullinan 12
(27 min, 16 balls, 1 four; swung across straight ball)
M V Fleming c Kallis b Cullinan 5
(18 min, 13 balls; brilliant catch off lofted drive to mid-wicket)
C C Lewis not out 10
(29 min, 17 balls)
R D B Croft run out (Cronje-Boucher) 7
(7 min, 7 balls; attempted short single to short extra)
D Gough c Rhodes b Donald 2
(5 min, 6 balls; edged drive to backward point)
Extras (lb2, w 7) 9
Total (196 min, 46.4 overs) 194
Fall: 1-30 (Brown); 2-77 (Knight), 3-83 (Hussain), 4-90 (Adams), 5-143 (Stewart), 6-169 (Hollioake), 7-169 (Ealham), 8-182 (Fleming), 9-190 (Croft), 10-194 (Gough)
Bowling: Pollock 8-0-28-1 (nb2,w1) (6-0-20-0 2-0-8-1), Klusener 9-0-58- 1 (w1) (4-0-35-1 3-0-14-0 2-0-9-0), Symcox 10-0-34-1 (w2) (one spell), Donald 8.4-0-32-3 (w3) (6-0-22-2 2-0-8-0 0.4-0-2-1), Cullinan 9-0-30-2, Kallis 2-0-10-0 (one spell each).
Progress: 50: 42 min, 58 balls. 100: 102 min, 143 balls. 150: 150 min, 217 balls.
Stewart 50: 109 mins, 70 balls, 5 fours.
South Afroca win by 32 runs
Man of the Match: L Klusener. Adjudicator: M J Procter
Umpires: R Julian and D R Shepherd. TV replay umpire: K E Palmer.
Match referee: Javed Burki.