An obdurate opener living on the edge of his batting wits, Dean Elgar is exactly the kind of player Australian teams generally "go after" with plenty of verbal venom. Think of Merv Hughes hammering Michael Atherton ball after ball of the 1993 Ashes series, or the whole Australian team targeting the West Indian Robert Samuels so intensely that Brian Lara channeled his indignation into a coruscating hundred in Perth in 1997.

Then of course there was another South African left-hander, Graeme Smith, being faced by a verbal barrage in 2002 that he later chose to recount in ear-curling detail. Smith was captain when Elgar made his debut against Australia in Perth in 2012, collected a pair, and was reminded of that fact plenty of times in subsequent meetings. His ugly but utterly effective unorthodoxy is also a common target for ridicule, contrasting as it does with numerous more graceful techniques in the South Africa batting order.

So to hear Elgar speak of the Wanderers Test match as his most "docile" against Australia, and to hear him question how long the fast bowlers in particular can "hold their tongues" when bowling to him, is to recognise how drastically different the team, now led by Tim Paine, has tried to be this week. Throughout a 250-ball stay that would usually have attracted plenty of unflattering Australian commentary, Elgar was mainly faced with the sounds of silence.

"Yeah, it's odd. I've played quite a few Tests against Australia and it's definitely been the most docile Test since I played Test cricket and I'm pretty sure it's not going to last very long," Elgar said. "I think you've got to have a bit of a tenacious approach sometimes in Test cricket. Nice guys come second, that's my saying, so I think you've got to have an element of a little bit of proper fight out there.

"Sooner or later if your bowlers are clocking massive overs and they're biting their tongue, sooner or later they're going to unleash something. There's a lot of frustrations in the game and a lot of frustrations that happen within five days. So it's only human nature for guys to potentially say words to each other but that's fine, if you're not personal and just having a competitive edge on the field, I'm extremely happy with that."

Elgar's question about how far Australia could sustain their current behavioural extreme is a telling one, for it reflects the fact that while opponents will doubtless welcome a greater level of cordiality on the field, many will still want to face an Australian side with something of the trademark snarl. The search for a balance, already attempted once post Monkeygate in 2007-08 up until the start of the 2013-14 home Ashes series, has resumed anew. Speaking from his own experience, Elgar said that all players had to find their own ways of operating within the wider framework of the team.

"It's never nice being called nasty things on the field but I don't mind that, it gets me going, so I'll use it to advantage," he said. "But saying that it's just another thing. Playing Test cricket for our country and we have a massive goal as a team and you need to put your personal ... whatever ways get you going on the field, you need to put that aside and focus on what the team needs. We've been quite hard on that goal and we're trying to achieve it tomorrow and it's not about me, always about the side."

Not all of Australia's mien in this match should be attributed to an attempt to get away from the previous "headbutt the line" philosophy. This is a mentally fatigued and in some cases jetlagged group of players, all trying to digest the fact that their two best batsmen and another promising one have been stripped away from the XI, with many a new role to be taken up. Where a settled team is far more likely to express a collective will, one as violently transitional as this one will invariably have players lost in their own thoughts.

Take, for instance, Joe Burns. Alongside Matt Renshaw, he travelled more or less straight from Allan Border Field in Brisbane and day five of the Sheffield Shield final, to the airport, to Johannesburg, to the Wanderers. Burns rationalised it almost as though he was continuing to play the same match, but it was an enormous ask for any player to skip so many time zones in the process.

"It's been tough at times with the jetlag but you keep reminding yourself that you're playing cricket for Australia. If you're a bit tired out on the field, you just deal with it. Have a Red Bull and get on with it," he said. "It was a whirlwind. I came off the field after the Shield final, flew out that night. Got here the Wednesday night, playing Friday morning. I think some people probably say it's a poor preparation but its probably not as bad as what you think because you're coming from a cricket game, basically waking up and going back out there and just go back into it. You don't think about it too much, so its not too bad.

"There's no denying that it's a little bit tough. Obviously a tough week, 2-1 down in the series, I guess me and Renners just said to each other we want to bring a lot of energy to the group, try and get the boys up as best we can, try and put in a good performance for the side and just go from there. I don't think we've really had time to do too many meetings or anything, it's just been straight into the cricket."

Like Paine, Pat Cummins and other members of the team, Burns spoke mainly about wanting to put together a performance of which Australians back home could be proud, a sharp left turn from the previous rhetoric about "getting in the contest", "hard but fair", "good, aggressive cricket" and the rest, all of which shielded the unsociable way the team had played cricket behind the a curtain of euphemisms that left opponents to spell it out.

"It's been a very tough week for the Australian cricket team," Burns said. "There's a lot of guys out there in the field really proud to be Australian and proud to be playing cricket for their country. Tomorrow's about coming out and just putting in a good performance for Australia, try and do the country proud and just try and really knuckle down and be proud of our performance tomorrow. Its going to be a grind, it's day five, last day of a really tough series and theres a helluva lot of motivation to do well tomorrow. So it's exciting to be going into the fifth day.

"As a group we've said all the way through the Test that we want to put in a performance that we're really proud of, that the people back home are proud of, that is fitting of the Australian cricket team. We go into tomorrow with a great opportunity to continue to show that. Obviously we've been behind the 8 ball quite a few times through the Test match and they've played some really good cricket. But we go into - I keep saying it, we go into day five with a great opportunity."

There is indeed an opportunity to salvage something from the series, but also to reflect on where the team will have to eventually land in terms of its identity. If Elgar's words were not quite as direct as those of the former wicketkeeper and now fielding coach Brad Haddin in reference to New Zealand circa 2015, they were not a million miles off them.

"They were that nice to us in New Zealand and we were that uncomfortable," Haddin had said. "I said in the team meeting: 'I can't stand for this anymore, we're going at them as hard as we can.' It was that uncomfortable. All they were was that nice to us for seven days. I said, 'I'm not playing cricket like this. If we get another crack at these guys in the final I'm letting everything [out]'."

Getting comfortable with the new behavioural direction enforced by the shame of Cape Town is something that will take the Australian team quite some time. In the meantime, the likes of Elgar and his fellow top-order grinders will enjoy the uncertain silence of a team somewhere along the journey from grub to butterfly.