Australia's captain Tim Paine has publicly conceded for the first time that he misjudged the thrilling conclusion of the Headingley Test, admitting he had not pressured Ben Stokes enough by keeping fielders up to the bat and at the same time allowing the England allrounder to farm the strike away from the last man Jack Leach.
While explaining why Usman Khawaja had been dropped for the Old Trafford Test to make way for the return of Steven Smith from a concussion, Paine admitted that he had been forced to face some harsh truths in Australia's post-Leeds discussions about the way he had led the team at the most critical moment, one wicket away from securing the Ashes in the space of three Test matches.
"I would do something differently with my field placings," Paine said. "There was times looking back at it where it was really obvious I should've had the field up and allowed Ben even to hit a couple of boundaries so we had more balls at the tailender. But I didn't do that. The mistake's been made, we've moved on, we've learned from it, but that would've been the main thing I would've done differently.
"We made some mistakes, it happens, we've addressed it as a team, we've spoken about it honestly. I was certainly one of those people who made mistakes, it happens in cricket, we've moved on and we're here ready for a great Test match."
The decision to drop Khawaja, arrived at during discussions between Paine, coach Justin Langer selection chairman Trevor Hohns two days out from the match, was both an admission of English dominance against a top order stacked with left-handers and also a conclusion on the No. 3's ability to handle the moving Dukes ball, which on average tends to deviate a significant amount more than the Kookaburra both in the air and off the pitch.
"Usman's obviously a key player in our side batting at No. 3 and he hasn't scored the runs that he or we would like," Paine said. "So with Steve Smith coming back it was a tough decision to make on Usman, but we think he's still got a lot of cricket left in him, he's had a very good Test record over his career, and we expect he will bounce back pretty strongly.
"I give my opinion, it's only been spoken about that I've been aware of this week, Us hasn't scored the runs that he would like and we would like from him and it's unfortunate for him that Steve Smith missed the last Test, and when a player that good is coming back someone's got to make way. It's a good thing for us that we've got a player of Usman's quality on the sidelines, it means we're getting our team to where we want to be and we want our selectors making hard decisions."
At the same time, Paine said it would have been a difficult call to drop Marcus Harris after one match, even though, having not made a century and averaging less than 30 after seven Tests, he has a much inferior record to Khawaja. "I think so, you're not going to change your order too much," Paine said. "Marcus came in, played one Test, I think it would have been hard to then leave him out straightaway. He played okay, he would've liked a few more runs as well, but we think Harry's had a decent start to his Test-match career and we think he's got a lot of talent and we think he's going to convert that into a lot of Test runs."
Australia's attitude to batting in this series has at times looked preoccupied by survival, and Paine said it was important for the tourists to get the right balance between diligent defence and natural attack over the next five days. "I don't think it's about buying time, it's about scoring runs," he said. "And whether you're David Warner and you score a hundred off 80 balls, or if you're Marcus Harris or Rory Burns and it takes time, it's important that when you play in England you stick to what works for you.
"I think at times that's what's brought people undone. They've come over here and tried to play in a completely different way rather than just try and adjust to what's coming at you. Don't go out there with any preconceived ideas about swing and the Dukes ball, and the wickets over here. It's the same distance, with the stumps behind you, and it's about watching the ball and playing the way you play. We're just driving that home to our batters at the moment. Obviously we'd like some more runs out of our top order, and England are the same."
Mitchell Starc is closer than ever to taking part in the series, though once again he will have to be part of a four-man bowling attack due to the continued omission of the allrounder Mitchell Marsh. Paine said that one further look at the Manchester surface would be required before a final decision is made. "He's in the 12 so he's close. We'll have another look at that wicket, it looks pretty dry," Paine said. "Hopefully it's got a bit of pace in it, but Starcy bowled superbly last week down at Derby.
"He's been working really hard at getting his length right and we were really impressed with what he did down there, he held his pace back a little bit, got the ball in the right area and swung it when he needed to, then we know what he can do to tail-end batters when he really cranks it up. the boys have been calling him 'The Mop' for a few years now, that's a thing he does really well, and even when you've got a couple of set batters you've got a big, tall left-armer who can bowl 150kph and can shake things up a little bit.
"He's a great option for us, we think this wicket might suit him, and if we make that call we're sure he'll do a great job as he has over his whole career."
As for Australia's overall Ashes blueprint, which had held up to within a single wicket of retaining the urn at Headingley, Paine remained adamant that his men would stay the course. "We are doing a lot of things right, we know that," he said.
"We know where we made some errors in the last Test match, but on the whole - when you look at the way we played our cricket and the numbers and things we look at and mark ourselves on - we've been doing them really well. that's why we've been in positions to win Test matches, we've just got to be better at finishing the job. Like we didn't do last week. We've learned from that and we'll be better for it."