With only nine months to go until the World Cup, and plenty of issues to resolve, this was billed as a tour about much more than results for England. So far, that looks just as well.
Two games into their time in South Africa, the series is gone, the home side 2-0 up with one to play and their hopes of automatic qualification for the autumn tournament suddenly back on track, while the defending champions have lost five One-Day Internationals in a row.
The first three might have been excusable, in Australia straight after the T20 World Cup win, but back-to-back defeats here in Bloemfontein offer more cause for concern.
Jos Buttler scored an unbeaten 94, Harry Brook 80 and Moeen Ali a long-overdue half-century as England set what ought to have been a defendable total of 342 for seven.
Only once, in fact, have they failed to defend a greater score in ODI cricket, but Temba Bavuma’s hundred put the Proteas firmly in the chase. In front of a fizzing crowd not far off 12,000 at Mangaung Oval, David Miller’s 58 off 37 saw them home in thrilling finish with five balls to spare.
Play began on another scorching morning in the Free State but if there was a hint of surprise at Bavuma’s decision to bowl at the toss then it soon diminished as Lungi Ngidi and Wayne Parnell found helpful movement in delivering a terrific opening spell.
Jason Roy, scorer of a statement hundred here two nights ago, had already overturned an lbw decision on review when brilliantly set up by Ngidi, who teased with two short outswingers before squeezing one back in between pad. Dawid Malan followed only six balls later, trapped in front by Parnell.
England’s openers had put on 146 for the first wicket in the series opener, only for the rest of the line-up to choke in pursuit of 299. Here, the middle-order would have to make amends with the heavy lifting.
Brook made a firm announcement of his arrival in this format with a maiden ODI fifty, less than 48 hours after his duck on debut. The Yorkshireman might have met the same fate had the inside-edge that brought his first runs not been so kind, but went on to showcase his easy blend of class and power in striking seven fours and four sixes. A century looked his for the taking, but the 23-year-old was undone by the temptation to bludgeon part-time spinner Aiden Markram out of the attack.
Moeen’s fifty was, remarkably, his first in ODI cricket since Bristol in September 2017 on what would later become an infamous night. His century-stand with Buttler set up the chance for a storming finish, which stalled briefly when the skipper went three overs without facing a ball.
Things accelerated, however, with the return of Ngidi, which Buttler greeted with a crisp stroke for four and then a 104-metre six that flew over the packed grass banks and out of the ground. Sam Curran (28 of 17) also cleared the ropes three times in an entertaining cameo, but Buttler ran out of road in his pursuit of three-figures.
Bavuma had no such issue. Having played nicely for his 36 on Friday, the diminutive opener again set about his business with good intent, heaving six off Reece Topley - who replaced the rested Jofra Archer - in the fourth over of the reply and, this time, kicking on. The captain’s century arrived in 90 balls and brought a gleeful celebration, a point to the name on the back of his shirt perhaps a reminder to those who had apparently forgotten all about it at last year’s SA20 auction.
Meanwhile, Olly Stone again impressed through the middle of the innings, taking a wicket in his first over for the second game in a row - this time that of Quinton de Kock - and bowling serious heat, tickling the 90mph barrier.
England were fired up elsewhere, too. When Bavuma was bowled trying to scoop Curran, the all-rounder supplied more than a fair send-off. Soon after, Buttler was similarly happy to show Rassie van der Dussen the way, a bit of needle surfacing after an earlier joust over the batter’s inadvertent obstruction of the field.
Van der Dussen's dismissal was daft, another centurion of Friday playing a risky reverse-sweep off Adil Rashid straight to Moeen to leave two new batters with the hosts still 165 shy.
They had made a sizeable dent by the time Markram’s monstrous six into the main stand brought up swift fifty-partnership with Klaasen, but the latter was out next ball, snared by a sensational diving catch from Buttler to give Stone his second wicket. Markram then fell one short of his half-century, deceived by Rashid.
The game felt wonderfully poised, England a wicket away from exposing a suspect tail but the Proteas, buoyed by Friday’s clutch performance and a once-again bubbling atmosphere, were in sight of the line.
With the first ball of Chris Woakes’ final over, Miller lifted over extra-cover for a six to cross it in style.