It was not exactly staying on their feet and dashing elegantly across the line, but considering what they have been through lately as a one- day side it was a victory of huge proportions. They had won only once in their previous 14 limited overs internationals and that hardly counted since it was against Bangladesh.
The margin was three wickets, and to achieve it they made the highest winning total in a day-night one-day international at St George's Park. It levelled the seven match Standard Bank Series at 1-1 after three matches. For two months these sides have been virtually inseparable and they are obviously not about to let daylight start appearing now.
It was wholly appropriate that the centrepiece of South Africa's innings was a teeth-gritted 105 by their captain, Graeme Smith, a man who requires the shoulders of Atlas.
Smith had played 58 previous one-day matches without scoring a century, a remarkable statistic since he has scored seven of the blighters in 56 Test innings. This maiden one-day affair could hardly have been more timely.
Team and captain have both been beleaguered, the first because the personnel is not right, the second because he has spent the past few months telling the selectors that the personnel is not right. There have been definite signs that this state of affairs has been affecting him.
His personality would not permit him to be anything other than determinedly bullish in public, and good for him. But his form had declined. He had an indifferent Test series and it had been 14 one-day innings since he had mustered so much as a fifty. England thought they knew how to get him out. Not this time.
At 1-0 down in the series and with another sell-out crowd desperate for them to come back, South Africa had no option but to go for it in style while the white ball was still hard. Smith crunched a series of fours through the covers as if to belie his weakness. His face was wreathed in anxious concentration. His side needed a win, he needed runs.
He had two escapes. The first was on 53 when he made a porridge of an attempted pull, only for England's acting captain Marcus Trescothick to put him down running to his left at mid-off. The second was five runs later when he decided to scamper a single that equated to cricketing suicide. Geraint Jones spared him by failing to hold on to the low throw in front of the stumps.
Smith and Gibbs put on 197 for the fourth wicket. It was the pair's sixth three-figure partnership in one-dayers. The previous five, of course, had all been for the first wicket. But South Africa are not in the mood to make anything elementary.
At 196 Darren Gough, brought back into the attack to get a wicket for his captain, did exactly as he was bid with a lovely, inswinging yorker that pinned Gibbs in his crease. Justin Kemp's stay was excitingly brief but worse was to follow at 214 when Smith was given out lbw to Ashley Giles. It was a close call and it could have halted South Africa in their tracks.
Mark Boucher ensured that they stayed up with a tricky run-rate before, once more making life difficult for his side with a handful needed. Boucher it was who got out in the last over on Wednesday leaving his side to tie. But this time there was no final slip.
There was only one half-century in England's innings, provided by the returning Vikram Solanki. The ink was barely dry on Solanki's application to the Dropped By England After Scoring a Century Club. It was presumably being considered by the club president, Geoff Boycott, who was famously axed after scoring an unbeaten 246 against India 38 years ago.
This extreme selectorial measure is usually adopted to penalise slow, selfish scoring, as in the case both of Boycott and Ken Barrington, who was omitted against New Zealand the game after compiling an extremely tedious century through which everybody slept.
Solanki was more in the blink and you miss it category. Last December against Zimbabwe he scored 100 from 91 balls. Come the first match of this series eight weeks later and he was out on his ear.
It was tempting to think that the management were punishing him for taking unfair advantage of a popgun attack. England were forced to recall him for the third match yesterday as they needed an extra batsman when Michael Vaughan accepted medical advice not to play through his virus.Reuse content