It was a disappointing end for New Zealand after Jesse Ryder marked his return from injury with 52 and openers Rob Nicol (33) and Martin Guptill (26) started their run chase brightly. -Photo by AP

AUCKLAND: South Africa battled to a thrilling three-run win over New Zealand to claim the Twenty20 series 2-1 after the Black Caps suffered a dramatic late batting collapse in Auckland on Wednesday.

New Zealand restricted South Africa to seven for 165 and went into the last two overs needing just 10 runs for victory, only to fall short after losing three wickets, including ducks for Nathan McCullum and Doug Bracewell.

Adding to the tension, James Franklin and Tim Southee both had chances to snatch victory at the death off the bowling off Marchant de Lange but could not connect bat with ball.

Franklin needed a six off de Lange's last ball but missed, scampering down the wicket for a run as the Proteas celebrated, then realised to their horror that the delivery had been ruled a no ball.

That gave Southee the opportunity to be the hero with a boundary but his air swing went nowhere near the ball, stranding New Zealand on seven for 162.

It was a disappointing end for New Zealand after Jesse Ryder marked his return from injury with 52 and openers Rob Nicol (33) and Martin Guptill (26) started their run chase brightly.

But the result was also testament to South Africa's never-say-die attitude after man-of-the match Johan Botha picked up the crucial wickets of Guptill and Ryder to swing the match their way.

“It was an amazing team effort, I'm really proud of the men,” captain AB de Villiers said. “We hung on at the end there.”

De Villiers admitted South Africa lost momentum when batting first and he was unsure if 165 runs would be enough on the short boundaries at Eden Park.

JP Duminy top scored for the tourists on 38 and there were decent contributions from Hashim Amla (33) and AB de Villiers (29).

But the Proteas never fired and needed a 22-run cameo from tail-ender Wayne Parnell to edge them towards a competitive total.

New Zealand's top priority early in the innings was to defuse the threat from opener Richard Levi, fresh from a record-breaking unbeaten 117 in the second match, in which he smashed 13 sixes and scored a 45-ball century.

The dangerman helped himself to one six from Michael Bates but was dismissed for 11 trying for a second off the next ball, failing to get enough power onto his shot and sending the ball sailing to Nicol.

Nicol was the stand-out performer for New Zealand, taking two wickets and two catches as well as being involved in a run out.

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