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James Lawton: Pietersen affair will be severe test of England's hard-forged team spirit

No one was going to let Andrew Strauss forget about the elephant – or was it a buffoon? – sharing the room but he had nothing to say about the egregious behaviour of Kevin Pietersen.

Not in so many words, at least. In fact, had he launched into some Shakespearean denouncement of the man who had plunged the last days of his brilliant stewardship of the England team into the shadows, he could hardly have done it more eloquently.

For all his frequently sublime ability Pietersen, right, has always presented a huge challenge to those attempting to inflict the concept of a team.

It is to persuade him that he does not occupy the very centre of the universe and, for so much of his reign as England captain, Strauss had performed the trick admirably.

He did it most conspicuously well while shaping the historic achievement of Ashes victory on Australian soil – and yesterday we had more than an echo of that performance. No, Strauss insisted brusquely, KP's messy, adolescent fingerprints had no place on his decision to retire that ushers in a new era.

Strauss had taken a long look in the mirror, an example which only extreme optimism might persuade us that Pietersen is likely to follow. Can he can convince anyone beyond the celebrity Twitterati that, at 32, even his extraordinary natural gifts are enough to justify the possibility of still more poisoning of the team ethic which Strauss and coach Andy Flower cultivated so relentlessly after Pietersen's own aborted captaincy?

It is the key to England's ability to find again under Alastair Cook the kind of consistent effort – and communal trust – which carried them so high, so quickly from such a fractured point in their history.

For the hierarchy the choice could hardly be starker. They have in Pietersen the kind of ability which can make a nonsense of the form book, but they also have an ego so uncontrollable that now nothing too outrageous in the context of high-level team sport can be put beyond it.

Cook spoke of the sadness that had come to the dressing room when the team heard the decision. The loss was of a captain who understood so well the nature of their common challenge, who had an even temperament and a nature equable enough in the most pressing circumstances.

Strauss forged with Flower a partnership that produced an environment in which complacency was dispatched as briskly as the worst of individual foibles – and for a little while it seemed that even Pietersen believed. After a dream-like double century in Adelaide on the way to the Ashes triumph, it seemed that nothing short of a gag could stop his praise of the culture imposed by Strauss – or the value of genuine team spirit.

Yet in a little more than two years he is performing as the most shameless of fifth columnists. He is disparaging his team-mates for the psychological, and perhaps even the tactical, benefit of his opponents in one of the most important Test series of his career.

We were told that Pietersen will be dealt with behind closed doors. But yesterday, out in the open, it didn't seem so hard to distinguish between what was right and wrong – and, not least, unforgivable.