Can South Africa shed their caution?
The ability to force a positive result could be the difference between South Africa and Australia in this series. Michael Clarke's declaration in Brisbane was held up as an illustration of positive intent while Graeme Smith was questioned for letting the game drift.
Smith became known as a defensive captain for most of his career but there were signs of that changing over the last year as South Africa got closer to the No.1 ranking. The most recent example was when he declared against England at Headingley in August and set them 253 to win in the final session. Although a successful chase seemed unlikely, Smith showed belief in his bowlers to make something happen in a short time, similar to what Clarke did in Brisbane.
Talk ahead of the Adelaide Test is that Australia hold the momentum having earned a "winning draw." Ricky Ponting was careful not to write off South Africa's capability to create situations from which they could win but acknowledged that they were blunted out of the match in Brisbane thanks to a shrewd Australian strategy.
"We had to make sure last week that when we were behind we were giving ourselves a chance to get back in front of the game," Ponting said. "I think it was a good declaration from Michael last week, it gave us a chance to put a bit of pressure on them, and there was only one team going into the last day that could win that game and it was going to be Australia. We're expecting them to be a better team this week."
South Africa are promising exactly that. AB de Villiers said improvements have been made en masse and Alviro Petersen indicated they are ready to play "tomorrow." Petersen also admitted that the rained out day in Brisbane thwarted South Africa and they ended up settling for less than they hoped to get out of the match.
"We dominated day one and the rain came. We had to change plans to still try and get a result. But we always play to win," Petersen said. In the second innings, making a game of it was the last thing on South Africa's minds. "We were just trying to stay there for as long as possible and not worry about the runs. "
While a stodgy South African second innings was inevitable, given the match situation, there were still frowns at the first-innings approach on the third day. De Villiers, Jacques Rudolph and the tail were content to play time rather than actively move the game forward.
Ponting said advancing proceedings is an Australian speciality and has been partly responsible for their success. "One of our strengths as an Australian team over the years has been our ability to keep the game going forward," Ponting said. "We're a team that don't play many drawn games, weather permitting there's normally results in games that we play, and hopefully there'll be a result in this game as well."
Over the course of Ponting's career, which began in December 1995, draws were the rarest result for Australia. Of the 166 matches he has played, Australia won 108, lost 30 and drew just 28. Petersen's sample size is much smaller but even so, there is something worth noting. In the 17 Tests he has represented South Africa in they enjoyed seven victories, suffered just two losses and drew eight times.
The last time South Africa won successive Tests was in early 2010 and the last time they did it in the same series was four years ago, against Australia. Under Smith, they have become exceptional at not losing, but not at winning consistently.
A more cautious approach in this series could be put down to the bigger picture in which South Africa for once are not on the hunt. "This time around is different because we are No.1. In previous series, we were chasing, this time we are holding on," Petersen said.
They do not even have the added incentive that winning in Australia will prove a point because they have done it before. Petersen was visibly irritated when asked if that was added motivation. "We won here the last time. How many times do you have to win to prove a point?" he asked.
Despite that previous success, Australia still remains a territory worth conquering if only because of how tough it is. The home side make it as difficult as possible both physically and mentally. South Africa have spent the week playing down the talk about sledging and Petersen was no different. "Cricket remains a game that will be played on the pitch," Petersen said. "When you say stuff you have to back it up on the pitch. And it's nice to get some verbals from the opposition."
Sometimes, Australia can even be quite complimentary as Ponting was in parts. "If you're the No. 1 team in the world you make things happen in Test cricket," he said of South Africa. "They've won a lot of Test matches of late so they're obviously making things happen."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent