Joe Root's seventh ODI century and half-centuries from Alex Hales and Ben Stokes propelled England to 318 for 8. But Quinton de Kock's second century of the series and Hashim Amla's return to form meant that South Africa knocked off the runs easily, crossing the line with 22 deliveries remaining.
England will hope to put that behind it and wrap up the five-match series when the two teams face off in the fourth ODI at the Wanderers in Johannesburg on Friday (February 12).
What would primarily bother England is the fact that South Africa scored at a phenomenal rate and lost just three wickets in doing so. A score of 319 for 3 in 46.2 overs meant it was a perfect chase for the home team.
In fact, bowling has been a concern for England. It managed to restrict the opposition to 262 for 7 in the second ODI, but in the first match, where it had the cushion of a massive total on the board, it was at the receiving end of aggressive batting. It managed to peg South Africa back with some timely strikes, but with the scoreboard reading 250 for 5 after 33.3 overs and a set de Kock at the crease, a South African win wasn't yet impossible when the skies opened up in Bloemfontein.
Trevor Bayliss, the England coach, confirmed on match eve that Stuart Broad would take the field on Friday. “It was always on the cards for him (Broad) to play some cricket on this tour once he got selected. Yes he has got that experience and it will be good to have that, especially at the Wanderers, where he had success in Test cricket,” said Bayliss.
Broad will likely replace David Willey or Chris Jordan. But that would mean England has to tinker with its potential ICC World T20 2016 combination, with both men a part of the touring party to India.
Adil Rashid, meanwhile, has been impressive with his economical spells in high-scoring games.
The batting, on the other hand, has been brilliant and an integral part of the side's success. Jos Buttler has been on a rampage, while Alex Hales's consistency has lent stability to the top order. Eoin Morgan has got off to a couple of starts, but hasn't made them count. Yet, with Stokes and Root in good nick, England doesn't have much to worry about.
For South Africa, de Kock has led the charge with the bat, but it is the return to form of Amla at a crucial juncture that it would be most pleased with. Faf du Plessis has consistently chipped in, but AB de Villiers hasn't been in the best of form. Even his 73 in the second game wasn't a typical de Villiers innings.
The South African innings in the first and the third games was about a couple of individuals. The second ODI had a more collective effort, and though it wasn't enough to get a win, South Africa will hope for more of that.
South Africa's bowling has suffered in the absence of Dale Steyn. Chris Morris and Marchant de Lange proved expensive in the first ODI, after which they were replaced by Kyle Abbott and Kagiso Rabada. Both Abbott and Rabada have held their own and performed well, but Morne Morkel's patchy form, which led to him being left out of the squad for the ICC World T20 2016, has not helped matters.
England has taken big strides as an ODI unit since the World Cup last year and can pick itself up from the seven-wicket defeat in the previous game.
For South Africa, nothing changes despite that impressive performance in Centurion; it is still facing a must-win situation. Momentum is on its side and it will want to make it count for something as another loss would mean its first series defeat at home in Tests and ODIs of the same tour in 14 years.
South Africa: AB de Villiers (capt), Kyle Abbott, Hashim Amla, Farhaan Behardien, Quinton de Kock (wk), Marchant de Lange, JP Duminy, Faf du Plessis, Imran Tahir, David Miller, Morne Morkel, Chris Morris, Kagiso Rabada, Rilee Rossouw, David Wiese.
England: Eoin Morgan (capt), Moeen Ali, Jonny Bairstow, Stuart Broad, Jos Buttler (wk), Alex Hales, Chris Jordan, Adil Rashid, Joe Root, Jason Roy, Ben Stokes, James Taylor, Reece Topley, David Willey, Chris Woakes.