Kevin Pietersen 'inclusion' clouds Test selection
Kevin Pietersen's inclusion, or otherwise, in tomorrow's squad to face South Africa in the must-win Lord's Test has been the source of fevered conjecture all week.
Predictions have ranged from the imminent end of Pietersen's career, to the more prosaic continuation of his vexed contract negotiations with the England and Wales Cricket Board - and back again, in some cases.
The matter will hardly be settled when national selector Geoff Miller tomorrow morning reads out the 13 names still in contention for the final Investec Test.
But there will be a line in the sand which marks England's intentions for the immediate future.
It is hard to imagine, unless Pietersen further forces their hand after his bemusing remarks at Headingley last Monday, or they deem the content of reported text messages sent from the batsman to members of the South African squad so damaging that they will dispense with such an obvious asset as his mercurial batsmanship when their hard-earned number one Test status is on the line.
The hosts must win to level the series and stop South Africa knocking them off the top of the world, little more than a year after England earned their elevation for the first time since the International Cricket Council introduced their rankings system more than a decade ago.
Pietersen is not only a world-class batsman but an attacking one who can alter the course of a contest quickly in any format.
In a last-ditch situation, which dictates England must force the pace to achieve a definite result, his assistance is much needed.
Unless he gives his employers compelling reason to leave him out therefore, it seems Pietersen's presence will be so desirable at Lord's as to make it the only legitimate call.
That Pietersen's place is not quite the formality it has been, when fit, ever since his Test debut in the 2005 Ashes, is proof of the major ongoing differences between himself and his employers.
Setting aside his concerns about the spoof Twitter account, mocking his personality but closed down this week, and his text 'banter' with opposition players during the Leeds Test, the bigger picture still centres on Pietersen's reported determination to play a full Indian Premier League next spring.
That will be at a time when England have Test obligations against New Zealand, leaving management open to allegations of compliance and special treatment were they to allow him to miss - for personal financial gain - scheduled cricket, in an Ashes year, in the only international format for which he is still available.
Timing could be key too, in the announcement next weekend of England's ICC World Twenty20 squad.
Pietersen already knows, following his absence from a preliminary 30-man list of those in contention to travel to Sri Lanka in September, that he is surely not going to be involved in England's defence of the only ICC global trophy they have ever won - and one in which he played a telling role to boot, having been named player-of-the-tournament in the Caribbean two years ago.
His absence from those plans will be publicly rubber-stamped, though, when England are required by ICC to halve their 30 to 15.
That non-involvement is at least partially of Pietersen's own doing, after his attempts to retire unilaterally from 50-over cricket resulted in the end of his road in Twenty20 internationals too.
England could nonetheless do without having to publish final confirmation, as they must, in the middle of a must-win Test match.
For a proud and clearly sensitive soul, it will be another blow to the ego - and another reason perhaps why Pietersen's Test future will remain in doubt even if he is picked in tomorrow's squad, at least until he does or does not sign his central contract next month.
If the selectors have decided to include him tomorrow, the remainder of their deliberations should be mercifully short.
Graeme Swann will be in the squad, and seems sure to return to the team too, after being left out at Headingley - for the first time in three and a half years.
In fact, the 13 chosen for Leeds can expect to be named again - before Strauss and coach Andy Flower fine-tune which seamer must step aside, to allow Swann's off-spin to re-enter the equation as one of their potential match-winning options.
England Test squad, third Investec Test v South Africa at Lord's (probable): AJ Strauss (Captain), AN Cook, IJL Trott, KP Pietersen, IR Bell, JWA Taylor, MJ Prior (wkt), SCJ Broad, GP Swann, JM Anderson, ST Finn, TT Bresnan, G Onions.
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