Bowling on longer than he should have as he looked to convert his career-best overnight figures into a maiden five-wicket haul, Root sent down 11 wicketless overs for 56. South Africa scored 28 off the last of them – 24 from Keshav Maharaj’s bat and four byes – to equal the Test record for most runs in an over.
Regarding his doomed pursuit of the final wicket, Root said: “My last five-for was in league cricket playing for Sheffield Collegiate. I think I got eight, but I’ve been a long way off that for a long time. It would have been nice to get it today but I’m not really bothered to be fair.”
Root was happier to enthuse about man of the match Ollie Pope, stating: “I think Ollie’s a wonderful player, I really do. I think he’s smart, he reads the game very well, reads situations very well as we’ve already seen in his short international career.
“I couldn’t be more pleased that he’s sat here with a hundred under his belt already and I want to see another couple at least throughout this winter because he’s more than capable of going on and breaking a number of records for England.”
It took just under two hours to claim the last four wickets England needed at St George’s Park, with Stuart Broad, Mark Wood and Dominic Bess all striking before a highly improbable 10th-wicket partnership between Maharaj and Dane Paterson.
Maharaj hammered 71 and Paterson chipped in with 39 not out.
In the end it took Sam Curran’s opportunistic run out of Maharaj to start the celebrations, but Root was never concerned by the late flurry.
“It’s a very difficult situation to captain because there’s no method to where the ball is going,” he said.
“It is easy to look at the last hour too closely but we’ll look at the four days that preceded it: we were outstanding, and that’s what we will concentrate on. We were very clinical in the areas we needed to be, and for us to be sat here 2-1 up, that is the most important thing.”
The result marks a notable achievement for Root and his side, the first time England have enforced a follow-on overseas since 2013 and the first time they have done so in a winning cause since 1992 in Christchurch.
The Barmy Army had not yet completed their morning rendition of Jerusalem when Broad got the game moving, dismissing Vernon Philander early for the second day in a row.
On Sunday, he had needed just five balls to take out his off stump and this time the veteran seamer was even quicker off the mark, his third delivery taking a thin inside edge and looping up off the pad.
Pope was stationed at short midwicket and snaffled his sixth catch of a match that also saw him post a maiden Test century during England’s big first-innings.
Root could not resist continuing his unexpectedly long and profitable spell from the previous day and kicked things off from the Duck Pond End.
He spent four overs trying before Wood replaced Broad and grabbed England’s second at the first time of asking. With two men back for the short ball, he surprised Kagiso Rabada by starting with a full one.
The No 9 made 16 in boundaries, including six off Root, but then chipped a simple catch to Broad at mid-on.
That was Rabada’s last act of the series after his ill-judged reaction to bowling Root on day one tipped him over the threshold for a one-match ban and the final match – not to mention South Africa’s chances of victory – will be poorer for his absence.
Bess got his turn and reasserted his credentials as the team’s specialist spinner, beating Anrich Nortje with his fourth delivery and splaying the stumps.
Things began to take a vaguely comic turn as Root took the new ball and kept going while Broad and Curran kicked their heels in the outfield.
Maharaj swatted the first three deliveries for four and then slogged the next two for six.
Root managed to avoid another big hit with his final ball but when the ball skipped past Jos Buttler’s gloves it confirmed his unwanted place in the history books alongside James Anderson and Robin Peterson.
Wood was dragged into another spell and Curran shipped 28 from two overs, but the all-rounder got his revenge when Marahaj, who struck 10 fours and three sixes, took him on at mid-on and was beaten by the throw.
Despite a bruising final hour England wholly outperformed their hosts over the course of the match and will retain the Basil D’Oliveira Trophy regardless of the result at the The Wanderers.