Big-hitting Chris Morris returned to haunt England and end their Twenty20 winning streak in a thrilling match at Newlands.
Morris, who had inflicted a series-levelling one-wicket defeat on England in Johannesburg a week ago en route to South Africa’s 3-2 one-day international success, this time hit 14 runs off five balls in Reece Topley’s final over as the hosts chased 134-8 to win by three wickets from the final delivery.
Topley had the chance to salvage a tie – and England’s second successive super over – as Kyle Abbott scampered back for the winning two, but he failed to gather Yorkshireman Joe Root’s throw from long-off to complete a run-out.
England had held their nerve in the field, until Morris’s party piece again turned the match.
Eoin Morgan’s team, who lost the last three matches of the ODI series, put in another jittery performance with the bat.
But on an increasingly awkward, used surface, South Africa surprisingly appeared set to run out of puff as a succession of batsmen failed to time their big shots and holed out in the deep as Chris Jordan took advantage with an impressive 3-23.
After Faf du Plessis put England in on a cloudy evening, following afternoon rain, they began with promise but then lost six wickets for 43 runs as Imran Tahir (4-21) inflicted a mid-innings wobble.
Jos Buttler top-scored in a match dominated by bowlers, with an unbeaten 32 from No 6, to give England their unexpected chance of defending a sprint-format sequence of victories stretching back 18 months.
The joke initially was on Alex Hales for forgetting to put his Twenty20 shirt in for hotel laundry in time for its return to open the batting.
But having borrowed Chris Woakes’s No 19, the digits blocked out, he soon proved he had not forgotten how to middle the ball.
Jason Roy failed to do so effectively off first-change Morris, and was caught at midwicket.
Then Hales was the first of two big wickets to fall for the addition of only a single – although in Tahir’s first over, JP Duminy and Kagiso Rabada running back from short fine-leg were lucky to avoid injury, let alone complete the dismissal, from a steepling mis-timed sweep.
Rabada’s inadvertent rugby tackle on his team-mate could easily have caused a spill or worse, but instead Duminy – who had dropped Hales at deep midwicket on 24 – ensured that mistake was not costly as the England opener failed, for the first time in the white-ball section of the tour, to reach 50.
Root had picked a Rabada off-cutter and timed it away for four past point off the back foot.
But when David Wiese tried the same trick with his first delivery, the Yorkshire batsman found the fielder this time to go cheaply. Morgan might have gone in similar circumstances on nought, also off Wiese, surviving largely because Rilee Rossouw charged the half-chance, which flew away for four instead.
Ben Stokes had hit a four and a six in his 11 runs, but then went walkabout when Tahir drifted one wide and had no chance of retaining his balance as AB de Villiers completed the stumping.
Morgan just mustered double-figures before slicing a catch to short third-man off Tahir, who was on a hat-trick when Moeen Ali was well-held driving to extra-cover and went on to equal his career-best figures.
England had only four wickets left for their last seven overs – but Buttler did his best to give them an unlikely shot at victory.
South Africa lost both openers early, De Villiers to a mis-hook at first-change Jordan and Hashim Amla well-hold low down at mid-on by David Willey as Stokes began his spell with a wicket-maiden.
Willey could not hold a very tough chance, racing back from mid-on towards the sightscreen off Stokes when Duminy had just three. But Stokes especially bowled well, as did Jordan, and South Africa could not gather momentum with a telling stand – until Morris intervened again.
Quinton de Kock sat out this match, and will miss the second one against England too tomorrow, resting the knee he injured during the Test series last month.
England Test wicketkeeper Jonny Bairstow has joined Pakistan Super League franchise Peshawar Zalmi.