Australia's coach Justin Langer believes the absence of Usman Khawaja was critical to the team's failure to put up a defendable total in their World Cup semi-final hiding by England, pinpointing his return to fitness as vital to the Test team's Ashes chances next month.
A hamstring strain in the final qualifying match against South Africa pushed Khawaja out of the line-up at Edgbaston, forcing a batting shuffle that saw Steven Smith at No. 3, Peter Handscomb in from outside the squad at No. 4, and Alex Carey bumped up to five. That rejigged order was soon 14 for 3, a hole from which escape was always going to be difficult.
While Smith and Carey did their bit in a restorative century stand to briefly give Australia a foothold, further wickets were to underline the value Khawaja's top order runs have provided on friendly days for bowling. Langer said Khawaja had been chosen with those very scenarios in mind.
"He was a big loss," Langer said. "We picked him believe it or not specifically for days like today when it was hard, you lose an early wicket, you want that No. 3, your Test No. 3, to score hundreds.
"We didn't have him but that's all part and parcel. We got beaten by a much better team. A few people were laughing about it but I've said from day one England are favourites to win the tournament, they should be. They're a great cricket team and they were better than us today. We were disappointing but they were better than us. And that's okay, you want to be winning all the time but we got beaten by a better team.
"I think you took Jason Roy out of England's side and it made a big impact. You take your best players out of any team, whether it's cricket or AFL or rugby, it's always hard when you lose your best players. There's plenty of talent in Australian cricket, no doubt about that. We're seeing that in the Australia A stuff at the moment, we're going to play 24 guys in two Australian teams leading up to the Ashes, there's plenty of talent there, we just didn't play as well as we should have."
"I've had my heart set on July 14 for probably 12 months so we got to July 11, we fell a few days short. So it's disappointing, we'd have liked to be there in three days' time, I'd rather be in England's dressing room now." Justin Langer
Khawaja's value as a top-order player in challenging conditions was aptly demonstrated in Langer's very first Test as coach, a last day fight to grind out a draw with Pakistan in Dubai last year, and he can be expected to be a similar bulwark on Ashes days where the Dukes ball seams and swings. Reflecting on Australia's semi-final defeat, Langer tried to balance his obvious pain with re-focussing quickly on the Ashes.
"It was just a really, really disappointing day for us but it's been a really good campaign," he said. "Don't underestimate the injury to Usman Khawaja and Shaun Marsh in that first 10 overs against South Africa - we fell 10 runs short of South Africa without one of our premier batsmen, who's been a really important part of the last six months and this World Cup. And Shaun, he broke his arm two days before so that put a bit of a dampener on our campaign. But overall it's been really good hasn't it. We were on top until the last game, fell 10 runs short and then had a really poor game today. So very disappointing.
"I've had my heart set on July 14 for probably 12 months so we got to July 11, we fell a few days short. So it's disappointing, we'd have liked to be there in three days' time, I'd rather be in England's dressing room now, it's always more fun winning than losing, but we have to turn to it now.
"We've known this was going to be an unprecedented time in Australian cricket, a World Cup and then Ashes, so we'll dust ourselves off, recharge our batteries, probably six or seven guys who'll be in the Ashes as well need to recharge and then start a whole new campaign. We'll take some lessons out of this, so it's another big campaign. The Ashes is huge for Australian cricket and English cricket so we'll dust ourselves off and be ready."
In naming the efforts of Mitchell Starc, Alex Carey, the captaincy of Aaron Finch and the contributions of a reintegrated Smith and David Warner among the high points of Australia's Cup, Langer agreed that Glenn Maxwell and Marcus Stoinis had cause to analyse underwhelming tournaments. However, he defended Handscomb after a brief and unsuccessful innings in Birmingham.
"They'll both be really disappointed with the whole World Cup won't they," Langer said of Maxwell and Stoinis. "They were working really hard, giving it their best shot, but sometimes when your confidence is down a bit and its not something you can just flick a switch and you're back and firing.
"They still contributed - I think they were three and four in the fielding rankings, they've had little moments where they've had an impact. They'll be disappointed, there's a few guys who'll be a bit disappointed but there's been a lot more positives than negatives I think.
"Pete came in for one game, he came in for a World Cup semi-final. He helped us win an unbelievable series in India, he helped us win five-nil [against Pakistan in UAE], and then was really, really unlucky. Then to have to come into a World Cup having not played any of the games its a really tough ask on him and it would've been for any of our players."
As for England's highly orchestrated four-year drive to the final, in marked contrast to Australia's more chaotic path, Langer echoed Finch in saying that the work of Trevor Bayliss, Eoin Morgan and company would be closely assessed for any valuable lessons. After all, the cup will no longer be Australia's to hold.
"It's a good question. The big turnabout in our fortunes over the last six months was we got really clear with what our plan was, the way we're going to play into this World Cup," Langer said. "I mentioned in the press conference the other day that David Willey told me, they almost set four years ago, this is the squad we're going to stick with, they obviously made a few little changes along the way, but you build up for that.
"We've got lots of other really good competitions and goals to achieve with white ball cricket, T20 cricket there's a World Cup coming up, and obviously Test cricket. We're coming from a certain level and we're making some improvements but we've still got plenty of improvements to make."