For a while it looked as though Australia were still haunted by Headingley. In their first stint in the field since Ben Stokes tore them apart, a raucous Old Trafford crowd made a point of ironically cheering every time Nathan Lyon caught a return from his fielders. The first of two extended sessions in the field, with the benefit of a mammoth 497 to defend, was by some distance the tourists' worst of the series.
So many of the fundamentals of the Australian team blueprint for this series, mapped out by the coach Justin Langer, his assistants Graeme Hick, Brad Haddin and analyst Dene Hills, then enacted by the captain Tim Paine, were conspicuously missing. Pressure was not maintained, boundaries flowed and for a time Rory Burns and Joe Root were able to bat in circumstances that for a rare occasion across four Tests did not suggest they were fighting for their very lives.
Not unlike England, much of Australia's selection and approach for Manchester had been informed by the expectation that this would be a faster, more lively surface than the slow seamers offered up thus far. So it was that Mitchell Starc came into the team, having done plenty of remedial work on his lines and lengths in the Worcester and Derby tour matches, with the hope that his speed would be impactful on what is reputed to be the most slippery pitch in England.
Instead, Starc struggled to get things right, failing to make the batsmen play enough on the second evening then giving away too many runs on the third afternoon. His trial with a red ball in his hand, familiar to those those who watch Australia regularly, duly left far more responsibility in the hands of Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood, alongside Lyon, who was conscripted into a long holding spell at the opposite end to the quicks even though he was not exactly bowling at his best or tightest.
Fortunately for the Australian selectors, Cummins and Hazlewood were able to adjust from some of their earlier missteps, conjuring a couple of their best and most effective spells of the entire series. Cummins was not rewarded for his, but when Hazlewood followed up immediately with a burst that was little less hostile and even more accurate, England's top order dam burst in the final hour of play, losing three critical wickets and leaving it all to Stokes yet again.
Initially, Cummins had seemed far too preoccupied with bowling short at Burns, given the problems against the short ball that the England opener had exhibited in the first three Tests. But those dismissals had been allied to plenty of bowling on a good length, testing the outside edge, leaving Burns not entirely sure what was coming down at him. Here, he was able to make an early decision to evade short balls that arrived too frequently, and while he did not score from them, they did not look likely to get him out.
Only after tea, perhaps benefitting from some time in the dressing room to discuss their approach, did Cummins and Hazlewood rebalance things. Cummins concentrated far more on a line and length threatening the stumps, interspersing this with bouncers to drive Burns back. In common with his bowling to Root, Cummins was able to revert to the methods that had been so successful in the first three Tests, from a point near tea where a mere 13 of Australia's deliveries by pacemen had been going on to hit the stumps.
"I think as a general rule we probably did bowl a touch short in that first session and targeted the top of the stumps in the second session" Hazlewood said. "I think with bowling a lot of short balls to Rory Burns you can probably get into a bad habit as well. Definitely to the right handers I feel in the game if it's that top-of-stumps height, getting lbws and bowleds. Maybe something to look at for tomorrow.
"We had a couple of near misses here and there, Patty in that spell created a few genuine chances and half chances as well. Once you can get one and break a partnership you can get two and three pretty quickly. I thought it was really good the way Gaz [Lyon] bowled down that one end and we could come from the other, all the quicks. He was fantastic down there keeping the runs quite dry and towards the end as he kept bowling he looked more in the game."
Cummins' duel with Root was a mouthwatering one for spectators and followed a particularly eye-watering moment for Root. First, he had his box shattered by a Starc ball that angled sharply into him, needing plenty of medical attention and a replacement piece of protective gear. Next, he was struck a heavy blow on the back leg by Cummins. These moments took place either side of an edge, procured from a fast, full Cummins delivery that moved away just enough as Root tried a straight drive. It should have been a diving chance for Paine, but both he and first slip David Warner remained statuesque.
That missed chance was followed by an lbw review for the ball that struck Root on the back leg, the ball always outside the line of the off stump, both at the point of impact and the projection for missing the wicket. Australian frustration was growing, but fortunately for Paine, he had a refreshed Hazlewood ready to power in behind Cummins, as Lyon continued in support.
Root had suggested, too, that a three-man pace attack was key to the equation, for Australia have lots of fast bowlers in their squad but only half their number in the actual team. And the inclusion of Starc ahead of the more economical and into-the-wind Peter Siddle, meant that both Cummins and Hazlewood were likely to be pressed into longer service.
Whether three or four pacemen, they still had to be seen off, and Hazlewood's radar was back to its most precise at exactly the right moment. Burns was forced to play a ball around off stump that seamed away, skewing an edge into the hands of Steven Smith at second slip. Root was pinned lbw by a ball that was full, fast and moving back towards middle and off stump. Then lastly Jason Roy's move down to No. 4 - or No. 5 in this case behind nightwatchman Craig Overton - was not low enough to prevent him from having to face a moving ball.
Similar in length and direction to the delivery that had done for Root, it reaped for Hazlewood the gratifying sight of Roy's middle stump being knocked flat behind him, capping a spell of 3 for 15 in 27 laser-guided balls. Something that England have so far had to contend with is the fact that while Australia's batsmen have been able to wait out English spells in the confident hope that things will get easier, this has seldom been the case with the touring attack. Hazlewood noted that with six pacemen on tour, it was somewhat easier to attack with a "no tomorrow" mindset.
"It doesn't really come into my mind at all, probably due to the fact we've got three class quicks on the bench as well," he said. "Most guys have had a hit out now apart from Michael Neser. One thing Peter Siddle brought up at the start of the series is just focus on the game at hand, give everything for this game because we know we've got great back-up in the sheds. We'll be thinking about this game and after this one we'll worry about the next one."
There was plenty of praise for Cummins, who had done so much of the initial hard work to pull things back after Australia had looked momentarily caught in a Headingley feedback loop. "Patty rarely bowls a bad spell, he was fantastic there in the evening session," Hazlewood said. "He could have had a catch that went between the keeper and first slip and is always at the batsmen. Front foot, back foot, he just gets better every time he bowls. It's good to have him in your team.
"He's a machine really. Had all that bad luck with injury through his late teens, early 20s and he's come out the other side. He's always been a great athlete, it was just a matter of time before that body hardened up and his bones hardened up. As a power and strength athlete he's fantastic and he's got great endurance as well. He's pretty much the all-round package. It's quite disheartening as well sometimes to watch him run in all day, just such a great athlete and hopefully it continues for him."
By stumps, when bad light brought a close to proceedings ahead of schedule, Lyon was still holding up an end, but the mocking chants had died down. Stokes, of course, was still at the crease, leaving some memory of Leeds lingering. But in rediscovering their abiding blueprint in the final session, Australia took one step closer to the Ashes - and 15 more English wickets in two days will get them there.