Kevin Pietersen produced a bruising innings of 40 from 34 balls, before Owais Shah and Andrew Flintoff carried their side to victory in a fourth-wicket stand of 44, as England chased down a revised target of 137 in 20 overs to move a step closer to their coveted 5-0 whitewash. On a piecemeal day's cricket that was delayed for more than two hours then suffered two further lengthy interruptions, Shah and Pietersen roused England from a sluggish start with a third-wicket stand of 74 in 9.1 overs, before Flintoff scorched them to victory with 14 balls remaining.
In the end the result was emphatic, but this performance was not quite the waltz that England had produced in their previous two matches at Trent Bridge and The Oval. In part that could be attributed to the frequent weather interruptions (the match began as a 39-over affair, was reduced to 33, then finished as a 20-over thrash) but nevertheless, there were two clear occasions when South Africa held the whip hand, only for England to prise their fingers off with an efficiency rarely witnessed in the country's one-day cricket.
For the best part of a decade, South Africa have been a formidable one-day outfit, but this was a performance that revealed just how far they have slipped from the standards they were setting at the end of the 1990s. After being asked to bat first in juicy conditions, Herschelle Gibbs produced a glimpse of his former glories with a typically no-nonsense 74 from 75 balls, and Hashim Amla produced one of the most cultured 34s you could ever hope to witness, but a rollicking opening stand of 66 in nine overs was squandered as the soft underbelly of their batting order was exposed once again.
The man who exposed the frailties, unsurprisingly, was Flintoff, whose figures of 3 for 21 in seven overs transformed the dynamics of the match. He was thrown the ball moments after Steve Harmison had been clobbered by Amla for four wonderful boundaries in a single over, and his mere presence was enough to unsettle South Africa.
Off Flintoff's first ball, Gibbs pushed a good length delivery down the ground and charged through for a single. Amla at first hovered in his crease then belatedly set off, by which time Shah at mid-off had gathered with his left hand, pirouetted while transferring to his right, and unleashed a flat and deadly accurate shy at the stumps at the far end. It was a sad end to a fine innings, but Amla's reticence in the end cost him dear.
Two overs later, and Flintoff was in the action again - albeit in marginally controversial circumstances. Jacques Kallis, whose form has collapsed on this tour, swished loosely outside off to a ball that nipped off the seam, and appeared to beat the bat. Matt Prior behind the stump went up for a loud appeal, and Simon Taufel - after a consultation with his colleague - decided to refer the decision to the third umpire, Ian Gould. Under the current regulations, Gould can only adjudicate on whether the ball carried, not whether there was an edge or not. And so, a furious Kallis was sent on his way. Although belated replays did eventually suggest there had been a nick, it nonetheless seemed to be another muddled use of technology.
Gibbs brought up his fifty from 46 balls with a single into the covers off Samit Patel, but the momentum had been sucked clean out of South Africa's innings, and England's bowlers recognised as much. AB de Villiers never got going in a fitful 34-ball stay, JP Duminy slogged gamely before driving Flintoff to Ian Bell in the covers, and when Gibbs stepped across his stumps to be bowled off the thigh pad by Stuart Broad, South Africa were 158 for 5 and struggling. Vernon Philander - standing in for the injured Albie Morkel - became Flintoff's third victim as he scooped an over-ambitious drive to long-off, and the gut feeling as the end of the innings approached was that rain would be South Africa's only saviour.
For a while it appeared that would be the case. With five balls remaining, the heavens opened and the outfield was drenched, but such is the sophistication of the Lord's drainage system that a restart was inevitable if the weather cleared up. Sure enough, at 5.38pm they were back on the field, with England handed an unexpected opportunity to test their Twenty20 techniques before the Stanford clash in November.
Chris Gayle and his colleagues would not have been quivering in fear as they watched the early exchanges of England's chase. Prior and Bell had added almost 200 runs at a run a ball in the previous two matches, but all of a sudden neither man could get the ball off the square as South Africa's bowlers produced a wholehearted defence of their inadequate total. It took until the fifth over for Bell to score the first boundary, whereupon he fell to the very next delivery, as Morne Morkel found the edge of a wild swipe with a full-length delivery. By this stage Prior had fallen to Dale Steyn for a fourth-ball duck, and after eight overs of Powerplays, England had yet to reduce their requirement to double-figures.
But then, all of a sudden, Pietersen found his range. His first real shot in anger richoceted off Shah's leg at the non-striker's end, but there was no mistake with his follow-up, a bruising pull through midwicket off Vernon Philander. Kallis decided the time was nigh to bring himself into the attack, but the move backfired spectacularly. Pietersen battered him for three withering fours in a row, before Shah launched the sixth - and final - ball of his spell into the Tavern Stand for six.
The result was never in doubt after that. Pietersen swatted another six through midwicket, and though he holed out to Amla at midwicket (it looked for a moment as though he was about to unfurl the switch-hit), Flintoff's second scoring shot was a late cut of such sumptuous timing that you knew he was in the mood to see it through to the end. A fusillade of boundaries followed as the light faded along with South Africa's hopes, and he was unbeaten on 31 from just 12 balls when the winning boundary whistled through deep backward square.