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