It was close. So close that New Zealand got home with one ball remaining.
When the final over started the equation was 12 runs off six deliveries, the first two deliveries went for one run each. The third ball, four, as Daniel Vettori got Dale Steyn away to the boundary square of the wicket.
Fourth ball, a scrambled bye and the death blow came with the penultimate delivery of the match as Grant Elliott, who grew up in Johannesburg, sent Steyn into the crowd for six to reduce several members of the Proteas to tears.
Throughout the contest there was no clear favourite as the game, reduced to 43-overs per side as a result of an hour and a half rain delay, swung back and forth.
New Zealand’s chase got off to a flyer as Brendon McCullum made merry, blasting his way to 59 off 26 balls before a double strike by Morne Morkel brought the Proteas back into it with the hosts on 81/2.
Martin Guptill and Ross Taylor added 47 for the third wicket before a run-out pegged the Black Caps back once more. Taylor departed five overs later as JP Duminy struck to make it 149/4.
But a 103 run partnership between Elliott and Corey Anderson swung the match back in favour of New Zealand before Morkel struck once more, in the 38th over, before Dale Steyn grabbed his first wicket to dismiss Luke Ronchi and set up a tense conclusion.
“Amazing game of cricket. I guess the better team came out on top today. We gave it our best and left it all out on the field. We don’t go back with any regrets,” a clearly distraught De Villiers said in the aftermath.
“It will take us a while to get over this,” he added.
De Villiers had been one of the standout batsmen after winning the toss and opting to set the target with his unbeaten 65 off 45 balls. The Proteas were 216/3 after 38 overs when the rain set in over Auckland.
They were given another five overs to bat when play resumed and while Faf du Plessis departed soon after the restart for a well-played 82 off 107 balls but David Miller stepped in and blasted 49 off 18 balls to help South Africa to 281/5.
The Duckworth-Lewis calculation meant that the total was revised and the target set at 298 for New Zealand to chase.
“Hopefully the passion we showed made a difference in our country and hopefully the people can still be proud even though we lost,” said De Villiers.