London: Kevin Pietersen is nowhere in the vicinity of the all-important third Test between England and South Africa at Lord's, yet, as seems typical when the hugely-talented but complex batsman is involved, his name has been mentioned more than any other in the build-up.
The Test is as eagerly anticipated as any in recent memory – even Ashes contests – given what's on the line. England must win to draw the series and retain their status as the world's No. 1 Test team. Any other result will mean the South Africans leapfrog them to the summit. The match is also England captain Andrew Strauss's hundredth Test. If that is not enough to capture frenzied excitement, then throw in The Pietersen Issue for the extra spice.
With a bat in-hand, Pietersen's timing is better than that of most in world cricket. But put a microphone in front of him or let him loose with a public statement and things go awry. His initial "it's tough being me in the England team" outburst after the Headingley Test outraged his team-mates and that was compounded by news that he had sent text messages to members of the South Africa team (in which he allegedly criticised Strauss), which he apologised for on August 14 in an effort to rebuild bridges and find a way back into the team.
The England and Wales Cricket Board acknowledged Pietersen's apology on August 15 and revealed that he admitted his text messages could be construed as "provocative" against his own team-mates. The whole saga led Strauss to say on the eve of the Test that a comeback is far from routine just because of his apology.
It seems bizarre that England's best and most dynamic batsman could be frozen out of the team, especially after his magical 149 at Headingley that helped his team avoid a series defeat with a game to spare. But the saga demonstrates the damage that has been done by his statements and actions.
Strauss, who said he felt "let down" by Pietersen, agreed that the batsman had to be omitted from the team following his statements as his position became "untenable". "The truth is a lot has happened over the last seven days, the England team has been in the news for the wrong reasons," said Strauss on the eve of the Lord's Test. "We all want to move forward but there are some underlying issues on trust and respect that don't get dealt with overnight and it's going to take quite a long time to overcome those.
"My personal point of view is that I prefer those issues to be dealt with in private, away from the media, without the help of PR companies and press releases and that is certainly the way I'll be approaching it going forward.
"The apology is a first step, definitely, but there is a lot more to investigate with all of this and in truth if there is a way forward those issues regarding trust and mutual respect have to be dealt with and it is not just a one-way process and we need to deal with those behind closed doors.
"It's been hanging over us since Kevin's press conference after the Headingley Test match. There was a certain amount of relief on Monday that a decision had been made and we can focus on the Test. The challenge this week has been to not let it affect us on the field."
Time will tell whether the issue will distract England or unify them. Certainly, South Africa captain Graeme Smith is not taking the controversy as a weakness in the opposition camp and is well aware that these types of problems can bring a team together rather than split it. England have, after all, won six of their last seven Tests at Lord's. Judging by Smith's reaction to the issues in the England camp, it seems he is not fully aware of just how bad Pietersen's relationship is with his team-mates, believing it to be purely down to the text messages.
"I find it quite amazing that it's still going on and that it has reached this point," said Smith. "In our dressing room it's something that's hardly been discussed except the amount of time and coverage that it's getting. But obviously Kevin feels that he's done something wrong and he has apologised for that, really that's to get back into the England set-up and to sort out relationships. That's obviously the process he needs to take. From our perspective it's just been so overboard really. I can't believe it's still carrying on."
Smith also reacted with anger about the suggestions that his team used Pietersen's text messages as a ploy to remove him, as England's most dangerous player, from the team. "I'm amazed how the story got out in the first place," said Smith. "That's the most amazing thing for me. I heard Mike Atherton wrote a column about it, saying we did it on purpose. That's the biggest load of rubbish I have heard, I can't believe it has got to that point. We have come to play cricket, we wanted to be the best cricket team, we want to play better cricket than England and that's what we came here to do. To be involved in this stuff is what we have tried to stay away from this whole tour."
Strauss, meantime, will play his hundredth Test on his home ground, where he made his Test debut back in 2004, scoring a century against New Zealand. That was back in the day when he batted without team politics clouding his mind and without the potential for Pietersen antics to break out at any time. How he must long for those days of innocence.
Like Strauss, Smith will also savour another Test highlight at Lord's when he becomes the most experienced Test captain ever, crossing Allan Border's mark of 93. Smith, though, is realistic about his place in history. "To be able to last as long in the job as I have is a proud moment," said Smith. "To have had the support of my team-mates through all those years in different times is a special thing. I definitely don't see myself in the echelons of Allan Border, Clive Lloyd, Steve Waugh, Mike Atherton or whoever. I've always tried to be the best I can be. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to captain South Africa 94 times."