England, the official world number one, were bowled out for 240 in their second innings on the fifth and final day, making South Africa resounding favourites to win the three-match series and take that top ranking away from the hosts.
South Africa’s officials were adamant that the team had enough preparation leading into the Test, despite many pundits suggesting otherwise, and, apart from a first-day performance that lacked intensity and focus, they were always on top of the England team.
England began the final day on 102 for four and fought valiantly to save the Test before Dale Steyn, building up a wonderful head of steam with the second new ball, claimed three for eight in four overs midway through the afternoon session to break their resistance.
Steyn had begun the day by sending Ravi Bopara packing for 22, the batsman flashing at a wide delivery outside off stump without much conviction and dragging the ball back on to his middle stump.
But Ian Bell and Matt Prior batted with admirable tenacity and application, while showing solid technique and no little skill as they took England through to lunch on 177 for five.
Bell had survived two chances, AB de Villiers clanging a simple catch off leg-spinner Imran Tahir when he was on 20 and the wicketkeeper then missed what would have been a spectacular run out when Bell had 28.
Steyn, getting big reverse-swing, and Tahir, obtaining turn and bounce out of the rough, combined well after lunch to keep the pressure on England.
Tahir, who served his team well in the second innings with figures of three for 63 in 32 overs, provided a crucial breakthrough by removing Prior 11 overs after the break.
England’s wicketkeeper/batsman tried to sweep, but the bounce Tahir was getting always makes that stroke a very risky one and the safe hands of Jacques Kallis snaffled the top-edge at slip as it flew past De Villiers.
Prior had stuck around for 86 balls, scoring 40, a good effort for England and Bell, about whom much has been written as a strokeplayer, showed plenty of resilience, character and skill in scoring 55 off 220 balls.
The key wicket of Bell came in the second over with the new ball as the batsman followed an away-swinger from Steyn, second slip Kallis taking the catch, which came very quickly as the ball basically came off the face of the bat.
The wickets of Stuart Broad, caught behind for a duck gloving a leg-side lifter, and Graeme Swann, driving straight to cover-point, came quickly thereafter for Steyn, giving him superb figures of five for 56 in 21 overs.
After some brief resistance from Tim Bresnan (20 not out), Tahir then ended the innings by trapping Jimmy Anderson lbw for four with a delivery that basically rolled after it pitched in the rough.
The delighted South Africans, with their first victory at the Oval at their 14th attempt, are now calling the tune in the three-Test series that will decide the number one ranked team in the world.