South Africa know how to get stuck in. They have done it three times in the recent past - Adelaide, Johannesburg, Colombo - and they have done it exceptionally well.

That also means they know how to get stuck. They did that in Harare.

There was no match to save, no series on the line and no menace. They were not playing on a strip of sandpaper or confronted with the craftiest opposition. But there was a 15-over period in the afternoon session where JP Duminy and Vernon Philander scored just nine runs.

That was one instance. There were others. For periods of the play, the run-rate hovered around one to the over. The default deliveries were either full but not fearsome or wide outside off stump and the default shots were the stoic forward defence or the haughty disregard that could be ignored the same the way the criticism is.

South Africa have managed to block out the chorus being uttered from the Centurion, the stands and even much of the media box. "This is not how Australia would have played," people are saying. They would prefer aggression to the safety-first South African way, especially when combined with the fact that South Africa are No. 1 and up against an attack that can best be described as workmanlike and a pitch that is sluggish but not suffocating.

Against those observations could be a curt South Africa reply along the lines of, "Well Australia are not No. 1 and don't have an eight-year unbeaten record on the road," but it has been little more measured. "It doesn't always have to look pretty," Faf du Plessis said. "This game is one of those situations where you do the hard yards and maybe people don't see it as flashy or it doesn't look like the No. 1 team in the world but it's what we know we need to do."

Why? Because South Africa ideally only wanted to bat once and bat long. "We made a decision that this wicket would be the toughest to bat on day five. We wanted to score all our runs in the first innings irrespective of how much time it took," du Plessis said. "We wanted to get as close to 400 as possible even though it took us longer than people think it should take us."

South Africa used up 10 hours and 39 minutes and 158.3 overs, but their lead of 141 may not be enough for them to record the innings victory they were after. No matter. They have Plan B. "If we could bowl them out for 200 or 250, and then knock off 100 or so runs, that will be fine," du Plessis said.

It may yet turn out to be just fine but until it is, South Africa have allowed Zimbabwe to hope and that is what they are being criticised for. Because of what they call their respect for the game and opposition South Africa do not see this outing as an opportunity to show off against a team who were not expected to push the match into a fourth day. But their deference has also led to them not searching for an opportunity to dominate, which is something they could have done irrespective of the conditions.

Run-scoring should not be as laboured as South Africa made it look even though the surface is slow and the bowling slower. There was enough on offer to keep things ticking over. South Africa's lead could easily have touched 200 if they had batted with the same intent Quinton de Kock did. He was the only specialist batsmen to show signs of life, charging the spinner and searching for singles.

In the end, South Africa's first innings run-rate of 2.50 was the slowest ever against their neighbours. It was also their third slowest in any innings in which they have faced more than 100 overs in the last decade, which sounds too complicated to really comprehend but Zimbabwe are happy to claim it as their doing.

"I give the credit to my bowlers," Stephen Mangongo, the Zimbabwe coach, said. "They stuck to their disciplines, they know their strengths and weakness and they are not 145kph bowlers, they are medium pace. It is always difficult for people to score when they bowl line and length all day."

And if you are South Africa, it can be made to look much more difficult than it really is.