Take away the sandpaper, the poor judgment and the culture. The core of the Australian team's disintegration in South Africa actually comes down to the cricket itself.

At no point on this tour, even when winning the first Test, have Australia shown batting standards they would be happy with. They were effectively reprieved from facing up to the issue in Durban by Mitchell Marsh in the first innings, and then by a stop-start series of cameos in the second. Either way, the most incisive Australian bowling display of the series meant that, as in 2013-14, the batting did not have to be particularly strong for the team to succeed.

However, from the moment that Cameron Bancroft edged Vernon Philander behind on the stroke of lunch on day one in Port Elizabeth, things have unravelled. The process was certainly hastened by the Newlands ball tampering fiasco, meaning that upon the fall of Shaun Marsh's wicket on the second evening at the Wanderers, Australia had lost a jaw-dropping 16 for 146. But it was by no means a turning point in the series.

Even if Bancroft, Steven Smith and David Warner had thought more soberly about what was about to be tried, they would still have been facing a South African side that had gained their measure.

This is as true with the bat as with the ball. Through Dean Elgar, Aiden Markram, AB de Villiers and Quinton de Kock, South Africa have more successfully blunted Australia's bowlers. Even Hashim Amla contributed, in a long, dogged partnership alongside Elgar at St George's Park that was as ugly as it was effective in shaping the course of the series.

Elgar, while struggling mightily against Nathan Lyon, has been fiendishly difficult for the Australian pacemen to dislodge, helping smooth a path for de Villiers in particular. Over the same period in which the Australians lost the aforementioned 16 wickets, South Africa have piled up 19 for 796.

Without Warner and, more importantly, Smith performing, the pressure ramped up on both the rest of the batting order and the bowling line-up to do extraordinary things against the highly skilled South African side, on slow pitches offering variable bounce at times and, yes, reverse swing. One of the most intriguing elements of Newlands was that the Australians felt that the ball was not moving for them, when in fact it had been all series.

The difference between the sides at Wanderers was less the amount of swing being gained, and more the contrasting ways in which the two batting line-ups were able to play it. Assistant coach David Saker acknowledged this, even as he noted that each of Matt Renshaw, Joe Burns and Pete Handscomb were underdone, through either travel or lack of match practice.

"I think to put three guys into a Test match - two have come from Australia, one hasn't played a competitive game for a while - it was always going to be a little bit tough," Saker said. "But the opposition bowled particularly well and we didn't deal with that. That has been a little bit of the story of the series so far. We didn't leave the ball well and the opposition left the ball extremely well. They've outplayed us for sure.

"I think they've been extremely accurate, which is a big factor in being a good bowling attack. They've got Vernon Philander, who is as accurate a bowler as there is in the world. He also moves the ball, which is a challenge. And they've got probably the best strike bowler in the world in (Kagiso) Rabada. They complement each other very well and their spinner is bowling extremely well as well. But we just haven't combatted it well enough with the bat."

What Saker, batting coach Graeme Hick, fielding coach Brad Haddin and the rest of the support staff under the departing senior coach Darren Lehmann have been left with is a confluence of South Africa taking control of the series and the match, even as Australian try and block out the extraordinary events of the past week. So far, their attempts have met with little success, but Saker said there was more to be concerned about than simply the result at the Wanderers.

"We've just taken on board to try to really care for each other this week," he said. "We're realists and we're going to out to try to play as best we can. But we're just trying to care about each other and trying to put in a performance that the Australian nation and our group are proud of. So far that hasn't happened, but the effort's been there and there's no doubt in the dressing room the guys are trying their hardest, it just hasn't worked this game.

"After the week we've had, there's a lot of disappointment in the room that we can't put something together. We're not thinking too much about what's happening at home but we're thinking about the people that are part of our team that we've lost and that's hurting a lot of people in the dressing room. That is probably something that is hard to get out of their mind while they're playing, and no excuses again, but it's obviously playing a factor in the way we're playing so far in this game."

Warner's tearful statement and then evasive answers to questions about Newlands and before it - counterweighted by a sympathetic interview with Candice Warner in a Sydney tabloid that documented the abuse she and her children had faced during the tour - was the end of a miserable trilogy of public apologies by the three banned players. Saker said that players had been left to their own judgment as to whether to watch these or not.

"I'm sure most people would've seen it, there was a little bit of talk about it but to be fair we're sort of over all that," he said. "Watching Steve, Cameron and now David do it, it's quite upsetting for a lot of the guys so it's sort of something they're trying to blank out and just get on with what we're doing now is cricket. The one thing this week brought us was a game of cricket and we thought we'd get out in the middle and forget everything, and it was a good place for some of the players to just get out and play cricket again.

"It hasn't gone the way we would like, but we've got three more days and we'll fight as hard as we can possibly fight to make this game very competitive. But at the moment we're a long way behind the eight ball and we'll fight as hard as we can tomorrow. We're going to go out and play it like it's another game of cricket but there's obviously things behind the scenes that aren't normal."

The sad pageant of batsmen coming and going as the shadows encroached upon the "Bullring" served to undo the earlier efforts of the debutant Chadd Sayers and particularly Pat Cummins, who finally claimed the five-wicket haul his bowling had merited throughout the series. On his return to the venue where he made his storied debut in 2011, Cummins was unstinting in effort and impressive in accuracy and pace, while at the same time Sayers bowled economically and without much in the way of fortune. South Africa's subsequent incisions made for an unkind comparison, but the respective mental states of the two teams had to be factored in.

"The series has been really pleasing. It's so good to see him get five wickets today," Saker said of Cummins. "He's probably deserved that in many Tests this series. He's bowled some spells this series that are as good as any bowler has bowled for Australia before. He's backed it up now for probably over 12 months. He's now trusting his body, which is great for him.

"There was times when he would have found that playing a game of cricket was going to be a worry because he thought he was going to break down but now he's got through some really good overs and bowling at good pace and good control. It's been really pleasing he's kept through the summer and this series, it's been outstanding."

Damningly for Australia, Cummins and the captain Tim Paine are the only two members of the touring party who can be said to have enhanced their reputations as cricketers on this tour. That statement would be just as true even without the fiasco of Cape Town, which will hang over this team long after the Johannesburg Test has run a course now running inexorably towards the hosts.