Graeme Smith has not worn the look he had on today for 22 months and 15 Tests - the span between losing the first Test against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi and their last defeat, to Sri Lanka in December 2011.

In its time away, the expression has grown considerably more tortured. His usual blue eyes become a shade at least five times darker, his mouth remains pursed, as though it is frowning the way a brow does and his jaw, appears more square than ever, jutting out aggressively, ready to protect and defend.

South Africa have not lost an away Test since Kolkata 2010, and the statistics from 2006 onward show them to be the best travelling team - with a win-loss ratio of 2.14. One defeat cannot erase that, but it has put a stain on otherwise clean sheet and that reality stings.

"It should hurt," Smith said. "But this team has too much ability to make this a habit. This is sport, you do lose and it's natural. We're extremely disappointed. We haven't been in this position too often. And with the standards that we set ourselves, we should have the ability to bounce back."

Smith is already thinking about the next match, perhaps because he wants to forget the out-of-sorts way South Africa performed in this one. After choosing to bat, they were bowled out for less than 250 and their bowlers could not adjust their lengths in time to suit the pitch at Sheikh Zayed Stadium, often bowling shorter than required.

South Africa lost their last six wickets for 50 in the first innings but they've been known to respond tenaciously even after lapses with the bat. This time, a refusal to bowl a fuller length meant "we didn't start as well with the new ball," as Smith admitted. With Pakistan registering their first century stand in more than 18 months, South Africa were out of the game before they could bat a second time.

"From a skill perspective Pakistan were better than us over a period of time and we have to be honest about that," Smith said. "The first innings was where we were put under pressure. Irfan bowled really well upfront but we fought hard to get into a good position and then we collapsed. If we'd pushed on to over 300, 350, we could have given ourselves a chance."

South Africa's second essay didn't turn too many heads either. But having been bowled out for 232 - which meant Pakistan needed only 40 runs to win - the way their bowlers approached defending a small target was encouraging for Smith.

Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander found a fuller length straight away and took three wickets in Pakistan's first four overs. "It was bittersweet because it made us think if we have 150 or 200 runs, we could have had a chance. But we were better with the new ball. That's a big step in the right direction."

That South Africa took almost four days to adjust could be seen as an indication they were underprepared for the conditions. They have not played Test cricket since February and their only opportunity to acclimatise was a lone warm-up game. Some of their players like Smith and Jacques Kallis were recovering from injury or enjoying time off to leave them individually short of match practice as well.

Smith would not concede on that front, insisting the team had done enough. "We maximised the preparation time we had," he said. "It's always very difficult to replicate Tests but we worked extremely hard in training.

"There wasn't a lot of time either. Maybe we could have played two two-day games but you also need preparation time to get to the ground you are going to be playing at and that sort of thing. The strength of this team has been the ability to maximise preparation time. This time, we've been outplayed and you have to look at that."

In an effort to polish their skills, South Africa will hold an optional training session tomorrow, before travelling to Dubai on Saturday and will be back at work on Sunday.

"We have to make sure we are not too emotional and that we have clever plans. We need to have good cricket discussions in terms of planning, tactics and skills," Smith said. "The motivation is there. We are really motivated to win the next Test match. That's got to be our ultimate goal. We have to focus on making sure our plans are better. We are one down and haven't played to our potential. I have no doubt we have a team that can come back and square the series."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent