South Africa v Australia, 2nd Test, Port Elizabeth, 4th day February 23, 2014

Australia left with uncomfortable answers

Australia walk away from the Port Elizabeth Test with proof of their vulnerability on surfaces that are less lively than the tracks at home, a theme common to their defeats in India and England

Even as they applauded the Ashes sweep, Australia and the world have wondered many things about Michael Clarke's team. How might the series in England have been different had Mitchell Johnson played? Would a team coached by Darren Lehmann have fared better on India's slow, low pitches? What will happen when Brad Haddin's river of runs dries up? Could the momentum gathered in Brisbane have been stopped by a better team than England? Can Michael Clarke's tail-off in form be carried for long? Can team spirit stop batting collapses?

Now, in a convenient, rapid and ultimately dramatic manner, all these queries and few else besides have been answered in the space of a single Test match. The previous visit to Port Elizabeth by an Australian Test side revealed the character of Mark Taylor's team who, when cornered, fought their way out to achieve a memorable victory that also buttressed their status as the world's best in all conditions and circumstances. This time, the trip to St George's Park has filled in numerous gaps in the previously incomplete profile of their descendants.

Under Clarke and Lehmann, Australia had enjoyed rich success against England and then first-up against South Africa on a lively track at Centurion. But they can now be seen as still battling many of the issues that bedeviled the regime of the previous coach Mickey Arthur, and even that of his predecessor Tim Nielsen. These are not matters of culture, spirit, identity or approach, and certainly nothing to do with "brand of cricket". Instead they are to do with technique, skill, patience and adaptability, mostly revolving around the team's play on surfaces not offering the pace and bounce with which they are most comfortable.

India, England and South Africa have all now demonstrated that the Australian teams of Clarke are most vulnerable on surfaces far less lively than those of their homeland. None of Chennai, Hyderabad, Mohali, Delhi, Nottingham, Lord's, Durham or Port Elizabeth - the locales of Australia's past eight defeats - offered much in the way of conventional seam, swing or bounce. Reverse swing, spin and, in the case of Morne Morkel, a unique trajectory have all come into play instead.

In the absence of any South African spinners accomplished enough to merit a place, Dale Steyn's wonderfully destructive spells of reverse swing at St George's Park revived memories of numerous other overseas incisions by pacemen of various countries. Zaheer Khan did it to Australia several times in years gone by with assistance from Ishant Sharma; James Anderson and Stuart Broad won a Test match each last year by finding life beyond the new ball. It is a skill Australia's batsmen struggle to counter for the same reason their opponents have been so flummoxed by Johnson recently - few compatriots in the nets have the capacity to replicate it.

It is not a new thing either to find that Johnson's effectiveness is limited by a slower pitch. While Graeme Smith sounded a little churlish when he attributed a 12-wicket haul to Centurion's steep and fickle bounce, his words had some truth to them. When Johnson went wicket-less in Delhi last year he was already well on the way to grooving the method that became so destructive in Australia, but on a Feroz Shah Kotla wicket of no bounce or pace he was negotiated comfortably enough. It is fair now to conclude that his impact in England would have been greater, but not decisive. If he cannot make an impact, neither it seems can Australia.

That India tour also led many to wonder at the wisdom of sending an Australian side to Asia without any real batting expertise on the subject of scoring runs on the subcontinent. The loss of Justin Langer from the coaching staff, accompanied by the retirements of Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey left the team light on relevant experience, and the new batting mentor Michael Di Venuto had precious little else to offer from a career played near exclusively in Australia and England.

Lehmann ventured to India many times and was known for his bold invention against spin. But it has been clear in Port Elizabeth that Australian batting frailty on slower surfaces - no longer obscured by Haddin's alliances with the lower order - cannot be eradicated purely through his influence on proceedings, nor by the unity and happy spirit he has engendered within the team. The surrender of all 10 wickets for 90 to lose a Test after a century opening stand was a most subcontinental sort of defeat, as batsmen found it increasingly difficult to start their innings. The discomfort shown by Alex Doolan, chosen for his ability on pitches like Centurion, had a cascading effect down the rest of the order.

Caught up in this rush was Clarke himself, who is in the midst of the worst run of scores in his Test career so far. While Clarke has maintained he is striking the ball well, his mien in the middle does not suggest he believes it. When he walked out to bat for the second innings, his team needed a circuit-breaker to disrupt the rhythm of Morkel, Vernon Philander and Steyn with reverse swing. What they saw instead was a timid innings ending with a poor stroke, the sort of loose swish he was associated with at times before he ascended to the captaincy. If batting was difficult, then Clarke should have also been good enough to find a way through it. His average and tally of hundreds stand as proof.

At the other end Chris Rogers was the only man on the final day, and arguably across the entire match, to transcend the limitations of his team. A career run-maker well attuned to notching hundreds no matter where, when or how, Rogers had not enjoyed the happiest of tours, out cheaply in three innings while struggling for the fluency of his latter two Ashes hundreds. He had found his place under question for the third time in 12 Tests, but summoned the sort of solid, unhurried innings that eluded his teammates. Looking on from the dressing room, Australia's other batsmen would do well to remember his soft, low hands and skilful manoeuvring of the ball, plus his knack for locating runs on days when he is not feeling his best.

The rush of wickets in the final session, a deflating nine in all, left Rogers, Clarke and the rest in a state of stunned silence they have not experienced since Durham last year. They have achieved much in between, winning the Ashes and plenty of respect, but must now regather themselves with the sort of swiftness that characterised the team's Johannesburg win in 2011, mere days after being razed for 47 in Cape Town. That brings them to one other question. How will the team of Clarke and Lehmann cope with a vast and unexpected defeat to interrupt their run of victories? The answer will be known at Newlands.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Nicholas on February 25, 2014, 9:34 GMT

    @Mad_Hamish (post on February 25, 2014, 2:22 GMT): "are you really calling Ponting and Clarke grafters?" = yes, I am/would. Neither tend(ed) to come out and play aggressive cricket and try to hit sixes in tests. Instead, these players come/came out and play(ed) steady innings; yes now and again they would up the tempo once they were settled and/or the bowling was poor, but I wouldn't class them as "overly aggressive".

    "Aggressive batsmen outside Australia, such as..." - yes indeed, all great players whom I enjoyed watching in tests - be they played in Australia or not. But read my first sentence of my previous post: a good, balanced test side needs a complimentary balance of both types of players. I've seen many more games where aggressive tactics/shots from an entire team have failed on certain pitches (mainly outside of Australia) than ones where this aggressive/overly-positive intent has paid off. Have Australia got this balance right? Does any team for that matter? I don't know.

  • Brady on February 25, 2014, 5:43 GMT

    South Africa successfully removed caught behind the wicket as a mode of dismissal in the first innings by playing with soft hands. They also removed the caught at short cover/midwicket dismissals common on slow wickets by not driving on the up. Australia didn't.

  • dinesh on February 25, 2014, 4:57 GMT

    did any1 expected aus to win this series 3-0? if yes then he's fool. 1 loss and suddenly evry1 starts writing articles and comments on how bad aus is? especially my fellow indians who always run a campaign of hate aus because they dont hae anythin to talk as we cant even win a single match agnst no8 side....our side will continue to be pathetic as ever....aus won 1st test by 281 runs and sa wont won 2nd one by 231 runs,,so that can prove which is greater quite happy aus lose this test and it wasnt draw...had this been draw aus wouldnt have won this series it would had been 1-1 but thankfully now aus can win this series, they have battin problems but i know they can manage it somehow....coon aus its winnin time again...waitin for more comments bashin SA (as always happens) if aus did win this 2-1

  • Dummy4 on February 25, 2014, 4:31 GMT

    Out of the two tests played, all is even and not just the scoreboard. SA won well at PE, they batted well, bowled well and fielded well. It was the opposite in the first game where it was Australia who batted, bowled and fielded well. before people say that the Aussies aren't much good on flat decks, remember that they are in SA against the number one ranled side with the top ranked bowlers. Give the Aussies credit for going into the third test 1-1. A ggod effort for the touring side.

  • Pontiac on February 25, 2014, 4:05 GMT

    It's a bit amusing when people still say "Lyon is probably the worst first choice spinner playing tests at the moment..." in a match where he took 5 in the first innings, in a series where over 2 tests he's going so far at 31.12, and better economy than any other full time Aussie bowler. As many wickets as Harris and Siddle put together. Go back over the Ashes and he's taking wickets at about 30, bowling plenty of overs, providing reliable control of an end, good fielding, and so on.

    Whatever problems Australia have, their spinner is not one of them.

  • Vikas on February 25, 2014, 2:43 GMT

    At the start of the series the debate began with "Mitch vs Steyn", who's better? This last test showed us the answer ? Mitch can be more dangerous over a short period of time, but Steyn is the more consistent over a longer period !

  • Hamish on February 25, 2014, 2:22 GMT

    R_U_4_REAL_NICK are you really calling Ponting and Clarke grafters? Also as far as aggressive batsmen outside Australia consider Sobers, Pollock, Viv Richards, Clive Lloyd, ... Lara, Tendulkar, .. Hayden, Gilchrist etc.

  • Hamish on February 25, 2014, 2:16 GMT

    Gautam N. Shenoy If you think Lyon is the worst front line spinner in the world at the minute you might want to look at;template=results;type=bowling;view=series he's not Warne or Murali but he's pretty useful Since his return in India Smith is averaging over 40 with 4 100s and 3 50s and his last 10 tests he's averaging 46 with 4 100s and 1 50. Harris' worst average in a series before the current one is 30.66, his last 2 series he's averaged under 20 with strike rates in the 40s. Siddle's got 188 test wickets @ under 30. The Aus side got outplayed in the 2nd test, it happens and there are things that need to be looked at but you've gone a fair way over the top on the attacks.

  • Warks on February 25, 2014, 0:43 GMT

    So what pitch will be prepared for Newlands should be the question everyone is asking. Apparently the captain of the home team can request the pitch he wants in any country apart from Australia. The haters will say Aus does the same but it's never mentioned. The curator is the man in Australia not the captain. In 40 years of following Tests I've never heard of an Aus captain requesting a type of pitch. Remember they still produced those lively belters at the Gabba and the WACA when Aus played the Windies in the first two Tests each series (and got hammered).

    I say prepare a lively pitch for the finale and let's see who is the best.

  • Android on February 24, 2014, 23:21 GMT

    I think keeping Rogers as the permanent opener Watson gets to open with him,Smith as no 3, Warner no 4, Clarke no 5 and Marsh no 6...