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There was always a likelihood that the potentially fascinating England v South Africa Test series would be overshadowed by events off the pitch. Most assumed those events would have involved Olympian athletes running very fast, champion cyclists pedalling as frantically as a newspaper boy being chased by a rocket-propelled Alsatian, the British sport-watching public suddenly remembering about rowing for a few days, and the tragic reunion of the Spice Girls (the alleged musical act who temporarily escaped from captivity for the closing ceremony before being apprehended, tranquilised and returned to their secret underground vault). And indeed, the Olympics duly enraptured the nation's sporting attention as they proved to be a magnificent success for Britain, on and off the track/lake/banked-track/ road/sea/pool/court/pitch/range/ pretend-mountain-river/mat/ring/horsiedrome.
It would, therefore, have been preferable for the Test matches not to have been also overshadowed by the dispiriting bicker and counter-bicker of Kevin Pietersen's ongoing battle with 21st-century communications technology, his employers, his team-mates and, above all, himself. It has been a game of squabble tennis that must have had the egg and bacon of the MCC members' ties frying each other in annoyance, although it does make you wonder how differently Bodyline might have panned out if Don Bradman had had access to Twitter.
Pietersen and his errant mobile will be absent from the Lord's Test, which is, respectively, bad and good news for cricket fans. When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, before excitedly ringing himself up to congratulate himself on his achievement, he cannot possibly have imagined that his well-meaning communications device would one day prove so damaging to English cricket. Hopefully the mysterious "advisors" who have apparently been directing Pietersen will take the opportunity of their man's absence from the Test to read a book entitled How To Advise People Without Ruining Their Careers.
Somewhere in the midsts of all this, what had formerly been a long-awaited Test series is taking place, in which Pietersen has displayed the full extent of his cricketing talent to haul England back towards the parity that most had predicted before the series began. He had even started to resemble the useful offspinner that South Africa had once hoped he might prove to be.
Perhaps the continuing after-grumble of this avoidable dispute will serve to unify the England team and spur them into an improved performance. If it does, they may win at Lord's. Or they may still lose, or draw. South Africa will be desperate not to fumble a series lead for the fifth time this decade. They have not lost at Lord's since 1960, and have been bowled out twice in only three of their last 14 Tests against England, but they have lost all four previous final Tests they have played in England since readmission.
The home team's task would have been easier with Pietersen, who, without ever finding a consistency of scoring, which may be impossible with his technique (and, perhaps, temperament), has played major, series-shaping innings four times in the last two years - double-centuries against Australia and India to facilitate England's first victories of those ultimately triumphant series, an incendiary 151 in Galle to transform a slow match and a disastrous winter, and his recent Headingley masterpiece, which significantly shifted the momentum of the current contest.
This is not to suggest that England should have picked him for Lord's. Without knowing, or caring, about the specifics of this disappointing shebang, it seems that Pietersen has been, to put it charitably, behaviourally erratic. When a team voluntarily leaves out its most dangerous batsman, it is fair to assume they have good cause to do so (unless that team is West Indies, in which case it is fair to assume nothing) (or unless that team is not a cricket team, in which case it is probably a reasonable selectorial call).
However, if Pietersen has unquestionably shot himself in the foot, his podiatrist will be removing a selection of different bullets fired from varying angles and from more than one gun. The episode is an embarrassment for the entire England set-up, about as edifying as a food-fight in a famine, and an individual and collective failure in an era that has been predominantly marked by individual and collective successes. Captain Strauss, who has conducted himself with characteristic care and dignity, has exuded the air of a parent trying to remain calmly focused on driving whilst his children are noisily smearing bananas in each other's faces in the back seat of the car. That those children are in their 20s and 30s must add to his frustration. There will be some interesting chapters in autobiographies over the next few years.
It is a hugely important match for England, and only partially because of the battle to retain their position at the top of the world rankings, which is of tangential relevance and dependent on the ICC's chosen bits of mathematics as much as results. If the team that had such a rampant 2011 was to lose its second series of 2012, whilst in a state of infantile internecine conflict, it would suggest a team in significant decline. Or, at least, a team returning to the level it had occupied before its spectacular peak, but in a worse mood for having scaled the mountain, before inadvertently slipping over whilst plonking its flag on the summit, and sliding on its backside down to base camp before it had taken all the photographs it wanted to.
England's successes were founded on ceaselessly effective team bowling performances, but the squad of bowlers who had recorded such phenomenal statistics and earned fully merited praise from 2010 until this summer are now facing a defining match. Tim Bresnan, who had mixed reliability with insistent probing and regular wickets, has been unpenetrative and expensive against South Africa, and has had only one effective Test out of five this season. Stuart Broad has been inconsistent - 11 for 165 against West Indies at Lord's at the start of the summer, 8 for 111 from the moment he dismissed AB de Villiers at Headingley, 3 for 311 in the two-and-a-bit Tests in between. Graeme Swann was dropped for the first time in his previously slump-free four-year Test career, after only six wickets in four Tests (Pietersen dismissed more top-order batsmen at Headingley than Swann had in the first four Tests of the summer).
James Anderson, England's most important bowler, who had taken at least two first-innings wickets in 18 consecutive Tests since the start of the 2010-11 Ashes, took only one very expensive one at the Oval, and picked up his second in the Leeds first innings only by dismissing the South African No. 11, Imran Tahir. He was not helped by some sub-shoddy catching, and maintained impressive control, but England need his new-ball penetration restored at Lord's.
Aside from those four core bowlers, Steven Finn has not played consecutive Tests since being dropped after the Perth Test in December 2010, and has dismissed only one top-order batsman in his two Tests this summer, and the injury-ravaged Chris Tremlett took 1 for 82 in his only Championship appearance of the year. It was an attack that showed almost no weakness for 18 months, even in defeat. Now, all of them are struggling for their best. They have all proved themselves previously. They must do so again. Against a batting line-up containing four of the top six batsmen in the current rankings. And a man who has just scored 182 in the preceding Test. Before its own batsmen, featuring two novices against three of the world's top-seven-ranked seam bowlers, try to convert their wickets into victory. Strauss' England are facing their greatest challenges, on and off the pitch/press-conference/dressing-room/ internet/mobile.
These two teams will not meet again in Tests until the 2015-16 season, by which time they will have played three Tests against each other in almost six years, a scheduling blooper of significant proportions in an era crying out desperately for competitive Test cricket. That this rare and annoyingly brief encounter of sides containing several of the world's foremost cricketers, who have generally produced closely fought and captivating series, has been scarred by a playground-level spat that has cost the climactic showdown its most compelling protagonist, is a source of considerable regret.
Confectionery Stall prediction: South Africa to win.
Player to watch: AB de Villiers. A pair of 40s at Leeds suggested that a major contribution could be imminent from a player who can make a cricket ball swoon and ask for his autograph in gratitude for having been hit so purely to the boundary.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writerFeeds: Andy Zaltzman
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Andy Zaltzman was born in obscurity in 1974. He has been a sporadically-acclaimed stand-up comedian since 1999, and has appeared regularly on BBC Radio 4. He is currently one half of TimesOnline's hit satirical podcast The Bugle, alongside John Oliver. Zaltzman's love of cricket outshone his aptitude for the game by a humiliating margin. He once scored 6 in 75 minutes in an Under-15 match, and failed to hit a six between the ages of 9 and 23. He would have been ideally suited to Tests, had not a congenital defect left him unable to play the game to anything above genuine village standard. He writes the Confectionery Stall blog on Cricinfo.