If England level the series amid this Kevin Pietersen furore, it will be their greatest triumph

Feeling persists that South Africa are simply the better side as No 1 status goes on line

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The Independent Online

There is a Test match to be played here today. That has tended to be inconveniently overlooked in the embarrassing imbroglio which has consumed the game in the past two weeks.

By its end the likelihood is that England will have lost to South Africa both the series and their status as the world's No 1 side. The fact that they have been recently elevated to that place in one-day cricket, extra- ordinarily so given their hopelessness in World Cups, will be of no consolation.

Test cricket is the acme of the game, the standards by which players are ultimately judged, the arena in which legacies are bestowed. It is why Kevin Pietersen has belatedly realised why he had better do everything he can to play it as often as he can.

If England were to win at Lord's after all that has happened recently it would be one of their greatest triumphs. When it was put yesterday to Andrew Strauss, their captain, that they did not have a prayer of levelling the rubber, he said those saying so were either misinformed or deeply pessimistic.

Only once in his impressive appearance before the cameras, microphones and notebooks did Strauss concede that England had been distracted by recent events. But he was adamant that when the players met on Monday night there was a sense of relief that the issue had been dealt with and they could concentrate on the match.

It has not been dealt with, not by a long way yet. But the players must feel that with Pietersen dropped they can just get on with the game. The only trouble with that is that with him not around they are a lesser team.

His resentments and causes have had a debilitating effect on the dressing room. If the players have not felt it directly, the management, especially the coach, Andy Flower, have been ensnared by it for weeks.

Yet with or without Pietersen, the suspicion has grown in the past month that if England lose this series it will have nothing to do with dressing-room politics. It will simply be because South Africa are the better side, indeed the best side around.

The tourists have always been tough opponents. Since their reintroduction to Test cricket in 1992 they have competed ferociously and have occasionally been formidable. But their fatal weakness has been to lose the one that mattered, whether in one-day cricket at World Cups or in Test series.

Gradually, they have shed that fallibility, that fear of losing which prevents them from winning, as they showed on their last visit to these shores four years ago. They were then taken over the line by Graeme Smith, their hard-nosed captain, who today will be captain for a record 94th time in a Test match.

In the rare moments when he was allowed to depart from the other topic yesterday, Smith reflected on why it has taken the South Africans so long to reach this place.

"There was a process of growth in South African sport we needed to go through to get to where we are today," Smith said.

"The stability that was created around the team a few years ago has played a part in where we are today. We're probably reaping the rewards now of a lot of hard work in the early days and probably a lot of in-fighting, different decisions to get to this point where we are now."

Smith did not sound like a man who was prepared to give up what has been fought for so long and so hard. It should not be forgotten that he is leading a deeply proud country still attempting to make good the sins of the past.

But England, as Strauss was at pains to observe, have not lost yet. If anything can bring them together, then these two components can. They are going into this match without their most illustrious player with their reputation on the line.

Strauss talked of the values by which the team lived and treated each other and reasserted his diligence to stick by them. In his tone, it was possible to sense that something had perhaps slipped lately. Whether the restatement of such principles is enough to overcome South Africa is doubtful.

More prosaically, the pitch at Lord's looks as though it may encourage a result. It has, or had yesterday at least, a covering of grass which could add some spice and pace and have the seam bowlers of both sides – the likes of Steyn, Morkel, Anderson and Broad – waking up happy.

England will not, however, make the mistake of leaving out Graeme Swann as they did in Leeds a fortnight ago. While that decision did not completely backfire it was not sensible and seemed to reflect an uncertain state of mind.

Strauss, in his 100th Test match and his 50th as captain, is fighting for more than the team's status. He is desperately trying to preserve his own position. He confirmed yesterday, albeit fleetingly, that he still enjoyed the captaincy despite all that has happened.

But whether it still enjoys him is another matter. England have lost five of their last 10 matches and six out of 11. With India to come this winter, that is not a promising path to be standing on. England's side looks vastly raw compared to their opponents and if they are to prevail their bowlers must have at least two days in the sun that have been beyond them so far.

Stranger things may have happened. If England win this match they can look at everything in a new light.


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The battle to be No 1: Who needs what

Current rankings:

1 England 122 points

2 Australia 116

3 South Africa 113

4 Pakistan 109

5 India 104

6 Sri Lanka 98

7 West Indies 90

8 New Zealand 80

9 Bangladesh 0

* If England win the third Test they stay at No 1. South Africa will move up to second even if they lose, but a draw or win at Lord's will see them overtake England and claim the ICC Test Championship mace which Andrew Strauss's side have held for a year.

Lord's details

England (probable): A J Strauss (capt), A N Cook, I J L Trott, J M Bairstow, I R Bell, J W A Taylor, M J Prior (wkt), S C J Broad, G P Swann, J M Anderson. S T Finn.

South Africa (probable): G C Smith (capt), A N Petersen, H M Amla, J H Kallis, A B de Villiers (wkt), J A Rudolph, J P Duminy, V D Philander, D W Steyn, M Morkel, I Tahir.

Pitch report Likely to be a typically true Lord's surface, perhaps with slightly extra spice and carry given the grass that has been left. Outfield will not be as pristine as usual due to scars left by Olympic archery.

Weather Today: Cloudy with sunny intervals. Tomorrow: Dry and cloudy. Saturday: Warm, some sun. Sunday: Sun and showers. Monday: Overcast.

Umpires S Taufel & K Dharmasena.

TV Sky Sports 1, 10.30am-7pm. Highlights: Channel Five, 7-8pm.