Australia captain Tim Paine believes Steve Smith’s return could be decisive in their quest to retain the Ashes.
Paine’s men were on the brink of going 2-0 up with two to play only for England all-rounder Ben Stokes’s stunning 135 not out to condemn them to a dramatic one-wicket loss in the third Test at Headingley last week.
Smith, however, missed that match with concussion after being hit by a 92mph bouncer from Jofra Archer in the drawn second Test at Lord’s.
Smith, who made 92 in that innings after retiring hurt, had previously marked his first Test since completing a 12-month ball-tampering ban with superb scores of 144 and 142 in Australia’s 251-run victory in the series opener at Edgbaston.
The 30-year-old is now set to play in next week’s fourth Test at Old Trafford provided he comes through this three-day tour fixture unscathed.
“Without Steve Smith playing I don’t think we were given any chance of winning that Test match, I think most people wrote us off in that Test, so we’re tracking ok,” Paine told reporters.
Australia were 77-0 without loss at stumps in reply to Derbyshire’s first-innings 172.
Marcus Harris was 52 not out and stand-in skipper Usman Khawaja, playing against his old county, 18 not out.
Both batsmen have struggled in the Ashes and one could make way for Smith while the other partners David Warner at the top of the order at Old Trafford.
“Steve Smith is going to come back in and play. So obviously someone from the last Test is going to miss out,” said Paine, who replaced Smith as Australia captain after the ball-tampering scandal.
“There’s no doubt about that. You have the best player in the world coming back into your line-up.”
England, however, will hope to have James Anderson back after their all-time leading wicket-taker -- playing in a 2nd XI match this week to prove his fitness -- broke down with a calf injury that saw him bowl just four overs at Edgbaston.
Meanwhile Paine insisted Australia had “moved on” from a remarkable reverse at Headingley.
“We had some honest conversations and we now we made some errors as a team and as individuals, but we can’t be holding onto that,” he said.
“We’ve moved on, we’re ready for Manchester, the group’s in a really good spot,” added Paine, looking to lead Australia to their first Ashes series win in England for 18 years.
Stokes was dropped late in his Headingley innings by Harris.
And with England needing to two to win, Stokes might have been lbw to off-spinner Nathan Lyon -- who the ball before had missed a clear chance to run out Jack Leach.
But umpire Joel Wilson ruled in England’s favour and, although replays suggested Stokes would have been lbw, Australia were unable to challenge the decision as they had run out of reviews.
Paine, asked how Australia could best dismiss all-rounder Stokes, who also made 115 not out at Lord’s, replied: “Hold our chances would be a good start.
“I think Nathan Lyon in the last two Tests alone would have got him out five or six times had we held our catches or referred our lbws.”
“Lyono’s still a huge weapon against him,” added Paine, rested from the Derbyshire match.
“But he (Stokes) is a world-class player, he puts bowlers under pressure and makes them do things and captains do things that you wouldn’t normally do.
“That’s a huge weapon England have got and one we’ve got to try and contain in the last two Test matches.”
Mitchell Starc, Australia’s World Cup spearhead but yet to feature in this Ashes, took three late Derbyshire wickets in one over.
Paine, however, said there was more to the left-arm fast bowler than just cleaning up the tail.
“He’s been working on his length and I think he showed some really good control in his first spell.”