Vernon Philander took five wickets as South Africa replaced England as the world’s No. 1 Test side with a 51-run win in the third Test at Lord’s on Monday.
England set 346 for victory, were dismissed for 294 on the final day as South Africa took the three-match series 2-0.
Philander, the man of the match, wrapped up the contest with two wickets in two balls to finish with five for 30 after Matt Prior had threatened to lead England to an improbable victory with a dashing 73.
It was England’s first home series defeat since losing to South Africa four years ago and the first time they had lost two or more Tests in a home campaign since the 2001 Ashes.
“That was a bit closer than we were hoping, Prior and [Graeme] Swann played some incredible shots after tea, so we had to hang in there, as we knew the new ball was around the corner,” South Africa captain Graeme Smith said. “Vernon Philander was outstanding with bat and ball.”
“We’re all bitterly disappointed,” England captain Andrew Strauss said. “It was an outstanding Test match, but South Africa played the better cricket and they’ve deserved it, although losing our No. 1 ranking is a bitter pill to swallow.”
Philander added: “I just tried to stay calm and contribute to the team, and it paid off. We knew that if we got the ball up in the right areas it would get a nick.”
South Africa, who won the first Test at The Oval by an innings and 12 runs, before the second Test finished in a draw at Headingley, only had to avoid defeat at Lord’s to replace England at the top of the world Test rankings.
History was against England as the most they had ever made in the fourth innings to win a Test was the 332 for seven they posted against Australia at Melbourne back in 1928-1929.
Seam bowler Philander had removed Strauss and fellow left-handed opener Alastair Cook late on Sunday to reduce the hosts to 16 for two at the close on the fourth day.
Philander struck again early on Monday when he had Ian Bell caugh for his overnight score of 4 by Smith at first slip, before a terrible mix-up saw James Taylor run out.
Jonathan Bairstow, who made a gallant 95 after coming in at 54 for four in the first innings, walked out to bat on Monday with England in an even worse position at 45 for four, but he showed his class before playing back to a low delivery from leg-spinner Imran Tahir to be bowled for 54 off just 47 balls with eight fours.
Then 134 for five became 146 for six when Jonathan Trott, playing away from his body, was brilliantly caught by second slip Jacques Kallis off fast bowler Dale Steyn for 63 after more than three-and-a-half hours at the crease.
Left-handed batsman Stuart Broad pulled Steyn for a six, but a stand of 62 with Prior ended when, on 37, he hooked a Kallis bouncer to Hashim Amla at long-leg.
At tea, England were 221 for seven, still needing a further 125 runs for victory.
England then scored rapidly, with Swann driving leg-spinner Imran Tahir and hooking fast bowler Kallis for two impressive sixes.
Prior, meanwhile, had gone to his own half-century in 107 balls with five fours and he made sure the attack continued by sweeping Tahir to the boundary.
A run out derailed England’s charge, Tahir gathering Jacques Rudolph’s wild throw to leave Swann, whose 41 also featured five fours, short of his ground.
Together with Prior, he had put on 74 in 66 balls, but England were now 282 for eight.