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No painful replays, a much needed break – Australia’s prep for Old Trafford 2023 vs 2019

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Australia have been here before. Preparing for an Old Trafford Test on the back of a defeat at Headingley. But this time things have been done very differently to 2019.

Four years ago, the team was forced by coach Justin Langer to watch back the closing stages of England’s remarkable chase. It was not well received and the looks on players’ faces can be seen in the first season of the Test documentary.

There was then a tour match against Derbyshire which included some intense warm-ups as players took out their lingering frustrations while time off was cancelled.

In 2023, Australia have not been forced to watch back Harry Brook, Chris Woakes and Mark Wood. When Mitchell Starc was asked if they expected a dressing down from the coach this time, he replied with a wry smile: “Wouldn’t have thought so.”

“Much to the chagrin of most of the players, the next morning we sat in the hotel boardroom and watched the entire Stokes and Jack Leach partnership on video. You could cut the air with a knife,” Langer wrote in his most recent Daily Telegraph column.

“The objective from my point of view was to tackle the disappointment head on, take lessons from the experience and then let it go and move forward. Who knows if it had an effect, but I am certain it galvanised the group.

“From the boardroom the entire squad travelled together to Derbyshire for a practice game…it wasn’t popular, leadership rarely is, but the learnings were invaluable. The reason it was unpopular with some, was that some of the players had promised to take a few days off and retreat from the pressures of the game with their families.”

Stokes’ miracle of 2019 was a more galling defeat for the Australians to take than the 2023 version. After dismissing England for 67 they had a stranglehold on the game. Then they had the home side 15 for 2 in the chase of 359 and 73 were still needed when Jack Leach joined Stokes.

This year, although Australia had stages when they were in control at Headingley, not least when England were 142 for 7 at lunch on the second day, it was a closer-fought affair throughout where advantage often swung session to session.

“It wasn’t one big partnership,” Pat Cummins said after this year’s Headingley loss. “This game ebbed and flowed the whole way through, whereas I think that one and 2019 we were probably ahead for most of it.”

In 2019 they would go on to win in Manchester and retain the Ashes before losing the final Test to share the series.

This time many didn’t touch a cricket bat for the best part of a week. Most of the players scattered for time off, heading to among other places Paris, Scotland and Spain. Steven Smith indulged another passion – tennis – with a trip to Wimbledon. Starc went to Bristol to support Alyssa Healy in the Women’s Ashes.

A few went straight to Manchester and a handful trained on Friday, but there will be just one full session before the fourth Test. Of the squad, only Michael Neser has played cricket having returned to Glamorgan where he hit a career-best 176.

The gap was long enough to have a tour match, but the intense nature of six Tests in two months, along with a view in the Australia camp of their declining value, meant they did not take that option.

“The training we can do now with how big the squad is as a collective, during the games is as good, if not better, than playing a game of cricket,” Marcus Harris, who declined the opportunity to play a county match, said. “I know last tour it felt very encompassing all the cricket all the time, we didn’t get any time off at all. As a group we are going to benefit from having a week or 10 days off. It’s nice to be able to get away from it, I’ve been here since the start of April. I have played plenty of cricket.”

More broadly, this approach reflects the evolution of how the men’s team has operated under Cummins and Andrew McDonald. The intensity Langer brought to the job was a big part of what ultimately proved his downfall, not helped by life in Covid bubbles during the 2020-21 season. The team were ready to do things differently.

After the crushing loss to India in Delhi earlier this year, which ended their hopes of a series win, the players were given a break with some heading to Dubai, although there were also more days of full training than this Ashes break. They responded with a famous victory in Indore.

Speaking earlier in the tour, after the victory at Edgbaston, Usman Khawaja talked about how players are now trusted to know what they need.

“It’s hard to quantify it, but I think everything that is being done with the team, with Pat and Andrew McDonald, [is] in terms of just cutting out the fluff,” he said. “Cutting out the box-ticking stuff. Really stripping down the game, saying what’s important, what do we think is important?

“People joke about it all the time…but even warm-ups every morning now are optional, do whatever you need to. Think that kind of stuff empowers players. It’s empowered us. We take onus on ourselves.

“Who wants the train today? Okay, you don’t want to train, fine. At the end of the day you are responsible for your own performance because that in itself impacts the team. If you are letting the team down in any way, that’s on you. We are all professionals and adults here and think it’s the first time for a long time that we’ve really been treated like adults and think that’s made a big difference.”

It’s a method that has served them well over the last 18 months, with a World Test Championship title to show for their efforts. But many in this squad need an away Ashes series to secure their legacy. They won’t want to leave it to The Oval.

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