Australians 77 for 0 (Harris 52*, Khawaja 18*) trail Derbyshire 172 (du Plooy 86, Neser 3-31, Starc 3-46) by 95 runs
Not even present for the tour game at Worcester, Australia's coach Justin Langer underlined the impending pointy end of this Ashes series by intently watching day one of the encounter with Derbyshire from behind the wicket, accompanying the selection chairman Trevor Hohns for long segments of play at the county ground in Derby.
What they saw, joined at various junctures by the captain Tim Paine, the resting David Warner and the former New Zealand coach John Wright, was more or less as might have been expected, save for the curious initial decision to field rather than bat first on a straw-coloured pitch.
Michael Neser claimed two wickets in as many deliveries with the brand new ball and later added a third, Mitchell Starc went wicketless for 12 overs before blasting out three Derbyshire batsmen in his 13th, two by splaying the stumps, and Peter Siddle bowled eight overs for 11 runs while accounting for the hosts' top scorer, the elegant Leus de Plooy.
Wrapping up Derbyshire's innings shortly after tea, the acting captain Usman Khawaja and the opener Marcus Harris then got comfortable against modest bowling, taking their time in the knowledge that only one of them is likely to play in the fourth Ashes Test at Old Trafford. Khawaja, as the senior player of the two, appears more certain of retaining his place, and one or two of Harris' signature airy cut shots through a gully area not overly staffed by Derbyshire did not inspire a great deal of confidence.
Nonetheless, he scored more freely of the batsmen, and in staying undefeated to the close, Harris and Khawaja ensured that Steven Smith's return to the middle following his concussion substitution at Lord's and subsequent absence from Headingley would be delayed by another day.
"He's always looking to score," Paine said of Harris. "I think if you bowl a bad ball to Harry he puts it away and I think that puts guys under pressure. He's just an attacking opening batter and he keeps the scoreboard moving, but as he's shown in Shield cricket he's got the ability to bat for a long time and score big hundreds when he gets in, we know that Harry's got Test runs in him, and when he gets set hopefully he starts well tomorrow, gets a big score and he can continue putting runs on the board like he has for the last 18 months.
"Steve Smith is going to come back in and play. So obviously someone from the last Test is going to miss out. There's no doubt about that. You have the best player in the world coming back into your line-up. I suppose this tour game is important for guys to make sure that you're keeping your name up in front of the selectors. And so far a few guys have done it, which is very pleasing. That's what we want. We want to have depth and we want our selectors to have to make difficult decisions."
In fact Smith's only involvement was a single over of ropey off-spin, including one practice delivery that sailed over the head of a startled Siddle at mid off. Neser, Starc and Siddle all bowled better than that, demonstrating what the selectors could expect should they choose any for Manchester. Paine said that Starc's bowling was steadily on the improve in terms of what the team needed him to do in English conditions.
"I think if anyone's stops trying to get better, that's a problem," Paine said. "We know what Starcy can do in terms of blowing teams away. We also know that coming to England in the past that hasn't worked. So he's been working really hard on getting his length right more so than anything. I think his opening spell today was really good. I thought he bowled in very good areas.
"He bowled with good pace on a wicket that was very slow. So I thought the signs that he showed with the new ball were really good. And then, like we saw again at the end, when he can go back to what his strengths are, attack the stumps and use his short-balls, he's a handful for the tail as well.
"He's been working on his length and I think he showed some really good control in his first spell. He bowled a long spell too [seven overs and eight overs] which he doesn't do a lot when he plays for Australia. I thought he controlled pretty well and, the areas he has been trying to improve so he can be important for us in English conditions, I thought he showed today he's going really well with that."
Rather less of a chance to figure in Lancashire is Cameron Bancroft, who must have been informed of a fairly lowly posting in the batting order after heading, at change of innings, for an extended practice session in the Derby nets. Langer, meanwhile, kept both eyes firmly on the middle.