Angelo Mathews had a front-row seat to the way captaincy could be when you are in control. He spent ten minutes short of three hours in the middle, watching as Faf du Plessis commanded his troops with scant reward on an afternoon that set South Africa up for a dominant win and which would have left Mathews wondering whether he should have been inventive with his own side.

On a fourth day pitch that behaved like a second-day surface, du Plessis was making a plan. He had his quicks bowling to 6-4 offside fields and kept a short midwicket and square leg, or short leg, in place, with only one man on the boundary to try and induce a mistake. He asked his bowlers to mix up their line-and-length disciplines with a short-ball strategy which had not worked against Mathews but which du Plessis thought may eventually overwhelm the Sri Lankan batsmen. He tasked his least effective seamer on the day - Kagiso Rabada - to implement it, just as the afternoon was growing long and Rabada "put his hand up and bowled quickly."

Coming round the wicket, the second delivery of his spell brought reward when Kusal Mendis tried to ramp Rabada over the slips and was caught behind. That brought Dinesh Chandimal to the crease and immediately got du Plessis thinking again. Chandimal was strangled with close-in fielders and his frustration grew. He had only scored 8 off 37 balls - and had already been dropped by Stephen Cook at mid-off trying to go over the top - when he handed a catch to mid-on. With a second new ball still to come, South Africa had made a match-winning breakthrough and opened Sri Lanka up, thanks to their ability to create pressure.

What Mathews was seeing was not revolutionary but it was lacking in his own leadership. The day before, with the pitch in a similarly good-for-batting condition, he had not been able to exert the same authority on South Africa. His bowlers were not as menacing with the bouncer and his spinner was neutralised. Still, instead of instructing Herath to tie South Africa down, Mathews spread the field and gave South Africa too many easy runs, albeit runs that could be scored in a chase if there had been more application from the batsmen.

By South Africa's own admission the target was chaseable although du Plessis was, perhaps, being a little generous. Yes, time was not an issue and the pitch hadn't broken up, but it's not every day that a team gets as close as Pakistan did at the Gabba. Still, even with 488 to defend du Plessis knew there was a job to do for his four-man attack.

It was never going to be easy, especially after South Africa requested more grass on the surface, specifically to stop it from deteriorating. That they were even willing to make that known publicly is in stark contrast to their usual assertion that they take whatever they get, even on home turf. After last season's drubbing in India, perhaps they're not scared to say when they are trying to make work things work in their favour, or to concede that their line-up is not as comfortable against spin as they would like it to be.

But there is a difference between the pitches they played on there - the Nagpur one was even rated poor by the ICC - and the St George's Park one they hosted Sri Lanka on here. Although South Africa were aiming to claim an advantage, it was more about the disadvantage they wanted to impose on the visitors.

A pitch that gets better for batting only suits batsmen, not a specific side. South Africa knew that if it didn't swing or seam - and it didn't do much over the last two days - their attack was unlikely to be able to make use of reverse-swing because the ball would not scuff up. They knew they would have to be disciplined and patient and they trusted that they would be. As Cook put it, they believed they could take Sri Lanka, "to their breaking point." Therein lies the real difference.

Du Plessis had an attack that bowled to the plans he made and the fields he set; Mathews did not always have that. Suranga Lakmal, Nuwan Pradeep and Dushmantha Chameera do not offer as much as Vernon Philander, Kyle Abbott and Rabada, even on an off day, and they are not as accurate. Sri Lanka could not find consistency in the second innings and "bowled in different places," according to du Plessis to help South Africa total over 400 - a total du Plessis wants them to reach more often.

That's not to say everything South Africa did was perfect, not even in the field. They dropped three catches and were sometimes messy but they stuck at it because they suspected that they would be able to overtake Sri Lanka in the long run. "We knew if we can get past Nos. 6 or 7, it is going to happen quickly," du Plessis said.

And it did. South Africa only needed 70 minutes on the final morning to repeat their bouncer barrage ploy and finish Sri Lanka off. In doing so, they also earned their bowlers an extra afternoon's rest, which could be crucial given the quick turnaround.

There are just two days between this Test and the next, which starts at Newlands on January 2, and Mathews lamented that it would not be enough time to make major technical changes, but hoped there will be some opportunity for a shift in mindset. There should be because the next Test starts next year and you know what they say about new years and new starts.