It has taken three days of an absorbing match for the batsmen to realise patience is the way forward on an unfamiliar pitch. Brad Hodge was the greatest exponent of the retro attitude in what could be the game's defining innings and he needs only nine runs on Monday for his first Test century.
Expecting bouncers and blazing boundaries, Australia were caught in a cross-batted mindset in the first innings and suffered. Only Matthew Hayden repeated the mistake and the upshot was an attritional performance that scraped a valuable lead of 272.
This is a match from an older era with its reduction of big-hitting opportunities on a slow surface rewarding sustained, accurate bowling. The South Africans found their line and chipped away regularly, but their efforts in reducing their opponents to 4 for 184 were then resisted by the new boys Hodge and Michael Hussey in an end-of-day 126-run stand.
Both batsmen have waited so long for Test chances they don't want to rush or waste. For them setting up camp and achieving strike-rates in the high 40s are rewarding options, unlike the usual dominators such as Hayden and Ricky Ponting who have reputations for fierce and regular hitting to maintain. Hodge and Hussey were free of that pressure and played at a tempo suiting the Test.
Hodge was becalmed many times after opening with a quick single boosted by four overthrows, but he refused to fluster and calmly worked for three hours over his half-century. Even in the slow times - or when he was calculating whether to sprint for his hundred before nightfall - he rarely looked hassled or hurried and with his green helmet shining under ideal conditions he offered a wide defensive blade on front and back feet.
Only as the light-tower shadows started to lengthen and the new ball arrived did he start to assert his attacking self. A pull that landed on the boundary and an upper cut signalled his change of mood. He was now settled and the shiny ball was coming on faster than the old one. With Hussey running hard and nudging towards 54 not out, Hodge decided against a risky push for three figures and finished unbeaten on 91 from 184 balls.
Hodge's considered approach was matched by the South Africans, whose main concern was a lack of variety with only Jacques Rudolph offering a slow-bowling alternative. The fast men were impressive as a unit until they eased off as stumps approached, and bowled well to defensive fields that included men in the deep on the offside and distractions at short mid-on and mid-off. However, they were let down by a Justin Kemp drop at gully when Hodge was 13 and a spilled chance off Hussey on 46.
Both opportunities came from Charl Langeveldt, whose most cruel denial came from the umpire Billy Doctrove when Ponting was 4. Uncovering a crisp pull shot, Ponting was caught brilliantly by Rudolph at square leg, but Doctrove had called Langeveldt for a no-ball. At no stage did Langeveldt's back foot cross the line and he missed his third wicket and watched through grimaces as Ponting added 49 at a vital time.
Most of Ponting's attacking instincts were then shelved and Hodge improved on the defensive lead. With an innings of poise he has secured his Test place and ensured the match hovers gently on Australia's side.
Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo