LONDON: South Africa replaced England at the top of the world test rankings on Monday after defeating the home side by 51 runs at Lord's to win their three-test series 2-0.
England, set a record 346 for victory, were dismissed for 294 after some plucky counter-attacking by Matt Prior (73), Jonny Bairstow (54), Graeme Swann (41) and Stuart Broad (37).
Jonathan Trott also chipped in with 63 and for a time it looked like England could pull off a miracle but ultimately the target was just too high.
The end of the match and the series was sealed when last man Steven Finn was caught by second slip Jacques Kallis off Vernon Philander, who finished with two wickets in two balls for figures of five for 30. Philander had also played two vital innings in the match of 61 and 35.
“South Africa definitely played the better over the course of the three tests,” England captain Andrew Strauss said.
“This match was how I envisaged all three games going - hard fought and small margins being the difference.
“Prior and Swann played incredibly well and it was during their partnership when I thought a win was getting into the realms of possibility, But I can't fault the hunger or desire of our guys. South Africa were just a bit too good and they deserve all the credit they get.”
South Africa captain Graeme Smith, who led the team to a 2-1 series win in 2008, said he felt this latest series triumph was even sweeter.
“Coming back here and doing it again feels very special,” Smith said. “It's hard to replace 2008 but this feels better because England were number one in the world and are always a tough team to beat in their own conditions.”
“Every guy in the team contributed to this at some point during the series and our batting unit really performed. We kept their key bowlers out of the series. Our top six played a big role in this win.”
It was always going to be a difficult challenge for England given that West Indies are the only team ever to have successfully chased a target beyond 300 at Lord's, when they made 344 for one in 1984. England's highest run chase is 332 for seven against Australia in 1928.
There was some late drama on the last day when Prior and Swann added 74 from just 66 deliveries. The crowd, basking in bright sunshine, began to sense something incredible might be about to happen but England's lack of wickets in hand cost them dear.
The defeat meant England surrendered their position at the top of the world rankings after holding the title for a year after displacing India.
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England have lost six of their last 11 test while South Africa remain undefeated in away series for six years.
Too many players under-performed for England with only Prior (275) and Trott scoring 200 runs in the series. Strauss averaged just 17.83 with a top score of 37 and their bowlers also struggled with top wicket-taker Broad's 11 victims coming at an average of 39.72.
The team's outstanding batsman Kevin Pietersen born in South Africa, was dropped for the deciding test for sending derogatory texts about England to their rivals.
Conversely, four South Africa players amassed more than 200 runs, with Hashim Amla racking up 482 at an average of 120.50, boosted by his national record 311 not out in the first test at the Oval.
South Africa started well on the final day, when England resumed on 16 for two. The home side soon slipped to 45 for four after Ian Bell (4) was caught at first slip off Philander and James Taylor (4) was run out.
Trott and Bairstow gave the Proteas a brief scare with a stand of 89 off just 102 balls. Bairstow followed his fighting 95 in the first innings with a more typically aggressive 47-ball innings, which included eight boundaries.
He was bowled when leg-spinner Imran Tahir went around the wicket and got a ball to keep low. Broad took 12 runs off one Dale Steyn over, including a pulled six over square-leg, before his cameo ended when he hooked Jacques Kallis to fine-leg.
The stand between Prior and Swann started the panic among the South African ranks.
The first over after tea was a maiden but the next seven cost 60 runs as Swann and Prior accelerated towards what seemed an impossible victory. Every run was cheered.
Prior reached his half-century with a second reverse sweep for four in one Tahir over. In the same over Swann lofted the leg-spinner into the crowd for a six over long-on.
Swann hit another six over mid-wicket in the next over when Kallis dropped short. Next ball, Swann drove handsomely through the covers when Kallis corrected his length.
Just as South Africa's seemingly inevitable victory began to look in doubt, Swann was run out by centimetres after hesitating over a quick single. Prior was caught at first slip by Smith off Philander.
“To not get over the line having got that close is very disappointing,” Prior said. “But South Africa played better all series.”