Adam Voges leans forward to push Rangana Herath back down the pitch. He does so in a tangle of bat, ball and ground. The delivery sails back towards Herath, who ambles across to grab it - on the bounce, or so everyone assumes. Upon doing so, Herath turns around and offers the gentlest of appeals to the umpire Richard Kettleborough.

As the replay is called for, Voges leans on his bat, a picture of unconcern. But what's this? He's half-volleyed the ball then hit the ground. It's a catch, as the third umpire soon confirms. When the verdict reaches the middle, Voges' expression turns thunderous. He swears he's done everything right, and marches off cursing. How the hell did that happen?

The Voges story this morning was equally true for Australia in this match. In terms of preparation, personnel, mental and technical approach, they thought they had Sri Lanka covered, and the pattern of play on day one suggested as much. But from a moment's miscalculated aggression by the captain Steven Smith on the second morning, a horrible realisation dawned on the touring team, much as it did on Voges. They did not have Sri Lanka covered, they were not fully equipped for the task, and their approach to the conditions and their opponent did not stand up when required.

Notably, this is Smith's first defeat as Test captain, ending a honeymoon period that spanned six matches at home and a successful effort to adapt in New Zealand. But more notably Australia's defeat was their seventh in consecutive Test matches in Asia, a streak spanning back to the start of the infamous 2013 tour of India. Over that period, Cricket Australia have spent many thousands of dollars on gearing their players towards better performances in the region. They have changed coaches, selectors and captains; they have employed a host of consultants, even Muttiah Muralitharan; and they have tried to replicate Asian conditions with expensive "spin pitches" at the National Cricket Centre in Brisbane.

For all that, the team's results suggest they are no closer to solving the Asian riddle than they were three years ago. In India they were beaten badly, by a team featuring Virat Kohli, MS Dhoni, R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. In the UAE they were stopped by Pakistan's twin batting pillars Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq, then routed by a quality spin bowler in Yasir Shah. But in Sri Lanka it was the little-known pair of Kusal Mendis and Lakshan Sandakan who confounded Smith's men, providing ideal counterpoints to the more estimable skills of Herath. By any measure, whether it be rankings, income or experience, Australia should have won this Test comfortably.

Test cricket is currently in the throes of a debate about context and meaning. The context to Sri Lanka's victory came from the fact they had not beaten Australia for 17 years, a 1999 victory the only time they had come out on top in 33 years of contests between the two nations. It also came from financial comparisons between Cricket Australia, a mighty conglomerate with cash reserves in excess of A$50 million and annual revenue of A$380.9 million for the last financial year, and SLC's US$16.5 million debt for the construction of a little-used stadium at Hambantota.

But history and money make little difference if a bowler puts the ball in the right place, and the batsman fails to deal with it. Smith's stumping was profligate in the manner of a billionaire lighting up a cigar with a $100 bill, and within the space of three days it had led to the sight of a hamstrung Steve O'Keefe trying to help Peter Nevill survive in the hope of fifth-day rain - but unlike the first four days, those showers never actually arrived. The lower order's dead bats raised a world record 25.4 overs without a single run scored, a landmark that left many to wonder what the earlier hurry had been. O'Keefe's effort was laudable given his injured state; several fully fit batsmen in the viewing area needed to show similar levels of care and attention.

Smith defended his choice of shot in the first innings, with the caveat that he had executed it poorly. But he agreed that Nevill and O'Keefe had shown the sort of resolve required of others. "I think with the batters probably a bit of discipline," he said. "I was really proud of the way Peter Nevill and Steven O'Keefe fought hard at the end, it wasn't easy, some balls were skidding, some were spinning, but it was difficult and they found a way to get through it.

"From the batters' point of view we need to find a way to be successful in these conditions, we let the spinners into the game a lot more than we probably should have. Rangana got the majority of his wickets on the inside of the right-hander's bat and the outside of the left-hander's, so we have got to find a way to play that a lot better in Galle."

To Smith's credit, he too showed evidence of learning and adaptation in crafting Australia's only half-century of the match on the final day. Rather than charging down the wicket in search of sixes, he skipped forward to pierce gaps through the leg-side field, and contented himself with ones and twos rather than clumping boundaries. For a time that method appeared to be working, and Mitchell Marsh also showed signs of permanence. But then came a pair of Herath deliveries skidding into the stumps, and failed efforts to get bat to ball.

So instead of leading Australia to victory, Smith wandered off the field and sat in the stands for his first defeat. How the hell did that happen? The same way it always seems to these days. Australia thought they had it covered; they didn't even get close.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig