England ran out of time and resources for a remarkable run chase and had to settle for a stalemate in the second Investec Test at Headingley.
Stuart Broad's burst of four wickets for 12 runs helped to leave the hosts a target of 253 in 39 overs, following South Africa's declaration on 258 for nine just after tea on day five.
England, whose number one Test status is in peril against South Africa this summer, took up the challenge initially by sending Kevin Pietersen out to open the innings and see if he could follow up his scintillating first-innings century.
It was not to be - Pietersen miscued to mid-on off Vernon Philander, following three boundaries in Morne Morkel's first over - and after closing on 130 for four, England will head for the final Test at Lord's 1-0 down and needing to win to rescue the table-topping status which has been theirs for the past year.
Broad (five for 69) had seized the moment after Pietersen (three for 52) produced career-best figures with his part-time off-spin as South Africa lost six wickets for 116 in the afternoon session.
But Jacques Rudolph (69) and Graeme Smith (52) had put on a century opening stand to keep the tourists in control of their destiny in this rain-shortened match.
Broad announced himself with two wickets in two balls, yet it was still a fanciful notion throughout that England could add to this venue's long association with great Test match drama down the years by somehow levelling the series.
It was a long shot from the outset this morning to take wickets quickly enough, and hope forecast rain would hold off sufficiently to bowl the opposition out and chase a victory target.
The weather performed acceptably, with partial cloud cover and just two light showers which took an hour out of an extended morning session.
England's bowlers, however, could find no way past South Africa's left-handed opening pair - until Pietersen was called upon to bowl the final over before lunch.
Flawed catching, which has dogged England this summer, did not help their cause either.
Rudolph grew in confidence - while his captain busied himself with his favourite occupation, taking his welter of runs against England past 2,000.
Rudolph, promoted to deputise for injured first-innings centurion Alviro Petersen, completed his 92-ball 50 with his ninth four - a cut off Steven Finn.
James Anderson dropped a tough, low chance diving to his right at second slip to reprieve Smith in Tim Bresnan's only over of the morning.
Then, just before lunch, the unexpected breakthrough came - as one had in the first innings - from Pietersen.
He needed two deliveries to shift Rudolph first time round, and just one today - finding turn from round the wicket to win an lbw verdict, confirmed by DRS.
Pietersen's second and third wickets came in unconvincing circumstances - although he ought too to have had AB de Villiers, dropped at first slip when Anderson put down his third chance of the match.
Before then, Pietersen had Smith caught at short leg when DRS upheld Steve Davis' decision - without necessarily demonstrating impact between bat and ball.
Hashim Amla and De Villiers put together another half-century stand, before the latter slapped a Pietersen full toss to cover - where Alastair Cook took a good catch.
The equation was still highly unlikely for England, but no one had told Broad.
De Villiers was perhaps a little unfortunate with the first lbw, to a ball which appeared to be beating leg-stump. But JP Duminy could not quibble with Davis' next verdict, condemning the left-hander to a golden duck, and Philander was soon sent back for single figures in similar fashion.
Jacques Kallis, defying the pain of a back spasm, still stood between England and stage one of a miracle - yet even he could not keep Broad at bay, trying to leave a short ball which followed him and ran over his glove for caught behind.
When Anderson held on to an exceptional one-handed return catch to see off Dale Steyn, the first of two wickets to fall for the addition of 18 runs after tea, Smith sensed an opportunity to call England's bluff.
With Pietersen gone, they kept a small but increasing crowd guessing as to their intentions as Cook and Andrew Strauss - at number three - put on 54 in 10 overs.
The captain passed 7,000 Test runs today but later hit a full-toss straight back at Duminy; Cook poked a leading edge to cover off Steyn, and when the promoted Matt Prior was run out after being sent back for a second by Jonathan Trott, England had to retreat to damage limitation - and hope they can give themselves one last chance to stay top of the world next week.