Kevin Pietersen looks set to win his battle to be fit for England's attempt to secure a third consecutive Ashes series win – while David Warner will be recalled from disgrace to make his Ashes debut in Australia's increasingly desperate efforts to keep this series alive.
For the second day running, Pietersen underwent a series of highly public tests on the left calf he strained in the second Test at Lord's. He had a lengthy bat spread across three nets in a sweaty indoor school, then emerged with England's physios for a couple of sprints in long black socks on the wet outfield. He seemed to grimace after the last of them before returning to the dressing room, but within minutes Alastair Cook was declaring himself "pretty hopeful" that Pietersen will play.
"Over the past week he has worked incredibly hard behind the scenes at rehab, which is not the most fun thing to do," the England captain said – although James Taylor has stayed with the squad as cover for any overnight regression.
An hour or so later Michael Clarke popped up from the state-of-the-art dressing rooms in the new players' and media building that has been constructed opposite Old Trafford's renovated pavilion, and spent much of his time discussing Warner – the tempestuous tweeter, occasional bar-room brawler and, briefly, a Delhi Daredevils team-mate of Pietersen's in the Indian Premier League. The batsman has rejoined the senior squad this week after slamming 193 for their A team in Pretoria.
"I'm very confident he's learned from the past," said Clarke when asked whether a wiser Warner had returned from South Africa. "Davey at the time [of the punch he swung at Joe Root in the Birmingham Walkabout during the Champions Trophy in June] he made it clear he was extremely apologetic for what occurred, and he knows what the expectations are as an Australian cricketer. He's trying to put that behind him and move forward, and I think he's doing a really good job at this stage."
Might those English rotters reserve a special verbal welcome for Warner in his first Ashes Test, given the baggage he brings into the series? "I think David will look forward to that, if that's the case," Clarke responded with a smile.
Warner, who has played all of his 19 Tests as an opener, is expected to bat at No6, with Steve Smith moving up to No5 after passing a fitness test on a back problem – unless Australia's coach, Darren Lehmann, and his fellow selector, Rod Marsh, have any more surprises up their sleeves, such as their decision to hand Ashton Agar his international debut in the first Test at Trent Bridge.
Now Agar is regarded as vulnerable, with the more experienced off-spinner Nathan Lyon expected to make his first appearance of the series on a cracked and patchy Old Trafford pitch that has been the subject of at least as much pre-match intrigue as Pietersen and Warner. But Shane Warne came to Old Trafford, the scene of his astonishing first delivery against England in 1993, on Wednesday to join in their final practice session with a view to working with Agar, who may yet play alongside Lyon – just as Cook insisted that reuniting Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann for the first time since Nagpur last December remains "an option" for England.
"It does look dry out there," Cook said. "The reason we have two spinners [in the squad] is because historically it has turned here and he's [Panesar] got a good record."
The England captain repeated the message delivered by Jimmy Anderson on his home ground 24 hours earlier, that the bitter experiences of Perth in December 2010, and especially Headingley in July 2009, would prevent this team being distracted by the alluring possibilities of the next few days and weeks – first retaining the Ashes, for which a draw would suffice, and possibly even going on to complete a whitewash.
"It is very exciting," Cook admitted. "We have obviously earned the right to get into this position as a team – it is a great opportunity we have. But you cannot start thinking about anything else. It's the first hour we are focusing on."
Clarke knows that even a repeat of the breathless draw Australia secured in the previous Ashes Test at Old Trafford, in 2005 – of which he, Ian Bell and Pietersen (if fit) will be the only survivors here – will not be good enough this time. "Definitely not good enough – we've got to win the next three Test matches to win the series," he said. "I know people will laugh at me, but I honestly believe we can still do it."
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