Zimbabwe v South Africa, only Test, Harare, 4th day August 12, 2014

Amla applauds SA for 'smart cricket'

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'Lead was extremely important on this surface' - Amla

It is no secret that the skill of a chameleon is to change colour according to what will serve as its best camouflage. The same can be said of some cricket teams, especially one that holds the record for the longest winning streak on the road in two decades, which will stretch to nine years by the time they play their next away game.

South Africa's victory in Zimbabwe means that when they travel to Bangladesh in 2015, they would have gone 13 series and one one-off Test without losing abroad. That is the second longest unbeaten period of all time behind West Indies, who went 17 series and a one-off match without losing between 1980 and 1995.

So it is no surprise that one of South Africa's greatest pleasures from their Harare heist is that they did it in conditions that they would not have considered comfortable.

"We haven't been able to play the type of cricket that we normally play. We've had to adapt a lot. We've had to play smart cricket to get the job done," the captain Hashim Amla said. "Winning in four days is as big a victory as you get, especially on this type of surface."

On a pitch which served to stunt free-flowing play rather than facilitate it, South Africa chose to employ a conservative approach rather than an attacking one because they decided that was the best way of coming out on the right side. They wanted to bat just once and almost did that with a first innings that flirted with 400 and was an exercise in clinical carefulness against an equally circumspect attack.

"To get a lead was important because we could hold the game for a long period of time," Amla said. "It's difficult to come in to bat if someone is bowling quite wide outside off stump with a packed offside field and just have a go and tonk it over mid-off or cover."

The run-rate that stagnated at two an over was the perfect foil to Zimbabwe's disciplined lines and lengths. It was what Amla thought stopped South Africa from a reckless unraveling. "We found it really difficult to score because of their plans," he said. "They certainly went on the whole patience route and the way we matched that with patience and the way we batted was special.

"We could have tried to take the game to them and showed them you shouldn't be bowling that way, and next thing you know you're six wickets down. We found ourselves 150 for four which is a delicate situation."

Where South Africa did attack was with the ball, it was in a department they do not usually dominate in. Dane Piedt registered the best figures by a South African spinner on debut, to follow-on from a domestic season in which he was the highest wicket-taker overall.

Although Piedt had conditions that suited him, he still has to use them craftily and Amla was pleased with the control the spinner showed. "He bowled exceptionally well. The wicket did turn and offered a lot of assistance to the spinners, but he bowled brilliantly. He stuck to good lines and I managed to set a good field and he did the rest," Amla said.

Piedt described the experience as a "dream debut," and hoped to work on his control in the future. "I spoke to (South Africa's spin consultant) Claude Henderson and we just spoke about being patient even though there's a lot of assistance," Piedt said. "Wickets are a reward for a lot of patience being shown."

For Piedt, the wait has not been too long. Last season was his first full outing as a franchise cricketer in South Africa - having being used between the Cobras and the amateur side before that - and he soared into contention for national selection with his showings.

After traveling as a reserve to Sri Lanka, he debuted in Zimbabwe and has done enough to keep his place. He will be the biggest positive South Africa take out of their last month away from home.

For other teams, much more patience needs to be shown to dethrone South Africa especially when they are visiting. South Africa are kings of the road and will be for a while yet. But under Amla, that is not the most important consideration. As he explained, just being kings is enough.

"It's a wonderful record to have but if you hang to records you will always be scared to push victories and you might sacrifice wining a game because of that," Amla said. "We want to try and win as many games as possible. Going forward we won't hold on to this. We don't want it to become such a factor that it changes our decision to win the game."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent