Is it time to think the unthinkable? Could England consider launching their defence of the Ashes without Kevin Pietersen in the team?
Or even leaving him out of the squad altogether? All these questions, and a few more besides, came to mind yesterday in the time it took a fallen champion to trudge back to the pavilion.
Anyone can get nought, of course. And bagging a first-baller is "better", in most cases, than scratching around miserably for half an hour while doing nothing more than confirming to all and sundry that you are hopelessly out of form. But, for Pietersen, a desperate dismissal at the admittedly highly skilled hands of Mohammad Aamer looked horribly like rock bottom.
A man who used to make batting seem so simple, and a huge amount of fun, has been a wicket waiting to fall all summer with even his 80 against Pakistan at Edgbaston requiring four or five lives. Yes, conditions have been difficult. And there is no doubt Aamer and Mohammad Asif have combined brilliantly to create a top-class swing and seam double act. But we are talking about Kevin Pietersen, a chap apparently destined for greatness until the wheels started coming off.
Even more worrying, though, is the fact that attention has switched from Pietersen's technique to the batsman's state of mind.
England's struggling No 4 has done nothing to ease concerns by admitting, on at least two or three occasions, to a loss of confidence – and this from a chap who seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of the stuff when biffing the likes of Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath all over the park.
A Pietersen without self-belief is not much more use than a Pietersen without his bat.
"I am trying to drag my confidence levels up," he admitted before this final Test of the summer. "They have been hammered over the past 18 months and I am not the same person I used to be."
Hammered? Pietersen may have been referring to the Achilles injury that ended his involvement in last summer's Ashes series and then, thanks to a nasty infection, kept him out of action for far longer than had seemed likely. But it is safe to assume he was thinking mainly of that messy affair in early 2009 which resulted in him losing the England captaincy on the same day Peter Moores was sacked as coach.
Pietersen needs to put a black chapter to one side, and it seemed as though he was when doing so much to help England capture the World Twenty20 crown in May. But this summer batting has appeared to be an almost impossibly difficult mental struggle.
The manner of yesterday's dismissal, driving at a delivery well wide of off stump with the home team urgently needing maximum care and concentration from all concerned, was not lost on anyone – least of all former England opening batsmen like Geoff Boycott and Michael Vaughan.
"That was a shocker," said Boycott. "His mind must be absolutely blown. This is a guy who thrives on confidence." And Vaughan, now Boycott's colleague on BBC Radio's "Test Match Special" programme, added: "To play a shot like that first ball your mind has got to be cluttered."
England's hierarchy will continue to insist they have no real worries about Pietersen. And the message that he is working tirelessly in the nets to put things right should not be disputed because it is undoubtedly true. But all that hard graft has not done the trick so far, so what next if the second innings here brings another failure?
One course of action, under normal circumstances, would be to rest Pietersen from the one-day series against Pakistan and send him back to his county. Trouble is, of course, Hampshire have decided they would rather proceed without their biggest name following his decision to leave them at the end of the season.
So what next? Well, despite those thoughts that accompanied Pietersen's exit yesterday, only one team would benefit from KP's absence for the Ashes opener on November 25 – and they wear baggy green caps.
Australia fear Pietersen because they know what he is capable of doing. England can only hope he clears his mind of everything else and remembers how to do it.Reuse content