Rarely has all the talk in the build-up to a Test been dominated by a man who will not be playing in the match.
Yet England’s dramatic decision to drop Kevin Pietersen from the third Test at Lord’s starting Thursday, allegedly over text messages he sent to South African players during the drawn second Test at Headingley, has inevitably put the focus on their absent star batsman.
The South Africa-born shotmaker averages nearly 50 in Tests and made a superb 149 at Headingley, where he drove South Africa fast bowler Dale Steyn back over his head for six.
By contrast, Jonathan Bairstow, the man who will replace Pietersen, was dropped after playing his first three Tests against the West Indies earlier this season and has an average of under 13 with a top score of 18.
Yet England have decided there are bigger issues than the possible loss of their world number one Test ranking, which they will surrender to South Africa unless they win at Lord’s.
Bairstow struggled with the short ball against the West Indies a fact sure to have been noted by Steyn and fellow fast bowler Morne Morkel, even if the Yorkshireman arrives at Lord’s on the back of 139 for the England Lions against Australia A.
Fast-medium bowler Tim Bresnan did his best to stick up for county colleague Bairstow by suggesting England could be an improved side without Pietersen.
“It may be an even better side, it’s one of those things where a talented player is being replaced by another talented player,” Bresnan said. “So why should we miss a certain individual because he’s unavailable for selection?”
But even those closest to Bairstow might struggle to believe that — at least for the time being.
There were reports late Tuesday that Pietersen and the England hierarchy were close to resolving their differences ahead of Saturday’s squad announcement for the World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka next month but any ‘peace deal’ will come too late for the third Test.
“I’ve always got on with Kevin,” said England captain Andrew Strauss. “That’s why this has all been a bit of a surprise to me.
“It’s about mutual respect and trust, and that is a core issue that is central to resolving this.”
Meanwhile, South Africa all-rounder Jacques Kallis said England would be a weaker side without Pietersen.
“He’s a world-class player … England losing him is a big loss for them. Any time he’s not on your side it does make a big difference.”
However, Kallis added: “Cricket’s not a one-man sport. There are 11 guys who can take a Test match away from us.”
The match will see Strauss make his 100th Test appearance and lead his country in Tests for the 50th time.
Strauss who eight years ago marked his debut with a century against New Zealand at Lord’s, his Middlesex home ground, would dearly love to match the achievement of Proteas skipper Graeme Smith, who marked his 100th Test with a century at the Oval to help put the tourists 1-0 up.
This match is also set to witness Smith, like Strauss a left-handed opener, break Australia great Allan Border’s record of 93 Tests as a captain.
The 31-year-old Smith has been captain in all but eight of his Tests and likes Lord’s almost as much as Strauss, having made a superb 259 at ‘the home of cricket’ in 2003.
Two Previous Tours
Smith’s two previous tours of England have featured the resignation of the then England captain (Nasser Hussain in 2003 and Michael Vaughan in 2008) and Strauss could go the same way if England loses at Lord’s.
England are set to recall off-spinner Graeme Swann after opting for an all-seam attack at Headingley.
Lord’s officials have said the outfield will resemble a “patchwork quilt” after the ground hosted the Olympic archery tournament, but have insisted it will be fit for play.
But while the archers may have left, there are plenty of ‘arrows’ still needing to be removed from the body of English cricket. (AFP)
England (Probable): Andrew Strauss (c), Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott, Jonathan Bairstow, Ian Bell, James Taylor, Matt Prior (wk), Tim Bresnan, Stuart Broad, Graeme Swann, James Anderson.
South Africa (Probable): Graeme Smith (c), Alviro Petersen, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers (wk), Jacques Rudolph, JP Duminy, Vernon Philander, Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Imran Tahir.