Pick Pietersen: the unavoidable decision

Bell is the future and Thorpe's best is in the past - but is this brash big-hitter the present?
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The Independent Online

For the rest of his career, and maybe his life, Kevin Pietersen will divide opinion as regularly as he slices apart bowling attacks. He is that type of player, that kind of man. Wherever he goes and whatever he does, however many runs and friends he makes, there will be a legion of snipers across the road.

He is the hottest name in English cricket, and the question of whether he should play in the Test series against Australia is no longer merely burning but ablaze with the ferocity of a bush fire having petrol poured on it. No player in recent memory has so vividly captured the public imagination like Pietersen has these past few months.

When somebody hits the ball as far as he does and with the results he has obtained in 15 one-day internationals, entrancement is an automatic by-product. Those counselling caution on the subject of his elevation to the Test team seemed to be vanquished in a controlled explosion of strokeplay against Australia at Bristol a week ago, when he scored 91 from 65 balls and won a match England looked like losing.

"England have got to play aggressive cricket and do something to make Australia underachieve," said Graham Gooch, a former Test captain and the best England batsman of recent times. "He is in such a run and so dominant he has to be picked. Pietersen is brash, confident and attacking, and he has scored all those runs." The view is now widely, if still not unanimously, shared. The selectors can rarely have been under such pressure.

But the other question is whom to drop. Gooch, with hard-nosed professionalism, nominated a batsman who at present has a Test batting average of 297, a figure which knocks Pietersen's one-day figure of 160 into a cocked hat. "Ian Bell is a good player, no doubt about it, and he will score runs for England," said Gooch. "But he is the future, and the future can take care of itself. If Graham Thorpe is in anything like good nick I would have no hesitation in playing him. The only thing that matters is winning the Ashes, and Pietersen can help to do that."

Not all former England captains are quite as decisive in their view on this as Gooch, and Nasser Hussain remains to be totally convinced. "I'm 50-50 now after that innings in Bristol," he said. "I think it would be a big thing to leave out Thorpe; for years he was the one man I always wanted in my team.

"If I was a captain now I would want Pietersen in my team. Maybe Graham will decide to call it a day, but it comes down to a choice between them. There isn't room for both, and any suggestion to leave out Ian Bell would be wrong. He's class and he's the future."

Graeme Fowler, another former England batsman, was different again. "You've got to play Pietersen, it would be ridiculous not to. I'd leave out Thorpe."

The selectors are aware that they must have an extremely good reason for ignoring Pietersen, and that there probably isn't one. But, if Thorpe was in their plans a month ago - and he was - he should still be in them. The fact that he is retiring from international cricket at the end of the summer was known before the Second Test against Bangla-desh, so that reason-cum-excuse cannot be invoked now. The senior pro was looking leg-weary in the field before that, so they cannot use that one either. In any case, he has had a new lease of life under the helmet at short leg.

"I'll tell you what about the Pietersen issue," said Gooch. "He needs to do something about that hair, and I can put him in touch with the Advanced Hair Studio to take care of it." Pietersen's hair - he has a blond streak down the centre - is designed to draw attention to himself. As was his expressed intention to have a tattoo of the three lions when he was in South Africa, to mark his love for England as his adopted country, an exercise that has now been carried out.

He is still not everyone's cup of tea. The fact that he jumped ship from South Africa to play in this country is not much of an issue any more. Some will never forget that he had the option to stay in the country of his birth and upbringing but chose to leave because of quotas favouring people who had been oppressed for a century.

That was after 20 years, and after another four he left Nottinghamshire too. In a little aside once, a longtime Nottinghamshire cricketer said he was the best young cricketer he had ever worked with. "He's at the top of a couple of other lists too," he added.

But Pietersen has settled well into this England team. Andrew Flintoff said Pieteresen's presence could relieve the pressure on him: "He's obviously a very exciting prospect. Things are going to be written about him. He's going to get built up, but he has just got to get on and do what he's doing." Somehow, despite his gregarious personality, he has been philosophical about his chances of Test selection. The Kevin Pietersen website, where he is known as KP, advances his claims loudly if discreetly enough.

If he continues in the rest of the one-dayers his claims to a Test place may be irresistible. But it should be remembered too that Australia do not pick Andrew Symonds for their Test team just because of his explosive one-day talents. A less popular view is that Robert Key may have prior claims on a Test berth.

Pietersen has scared the living daylights out of Australia once already, and they quickly made plans to combat him. "He hits a very long ball and at Bristol I don't think any plan would have stopped him," said the Aussie fast bowler Brett Lee. "He will obviously be in the frame and they'll find it pretty hard not to pick him. I'm sitting on the fence, but I'd prefer not to play against him."

If Australia truly do not want to face him, England must pick him, and Thorpe's Test batting average must stay forever at precisely 44.66.