England v NZ, 2nd Investec Test, Headingley May 23, 2013

Pietersen shadow lingers over England

Headingley still evokes memories of Kevin Pietersen's 2012 outburst but it now offers a further audition for his post-reintegration understudies

England are back at Headingley, the place where less than a year ago Kevin Pietersen flipped his lid and delivered his infamous "it's tough being me" lament. The reverberations of that were felt for months. England omitted him from their World Twenty20 squad in Sri Lanka and it was only after a triumphant Test tour of India that, as Matt Prior's tweet put it, his reintegration was complete.

Life has rushed on apace and this time at Headingley England are not bemoaning Pietersen's behaviour, but regretting his absence. He is out of the Champions Trophy, but the assumption remains that he will be back for the Ashes.

That makes the second Test against New Zealand an audition, with the batting understudy who most stumbles over his lines likely to be dropped when the distingué is back in town.

Alastair Cook is not the first England captain to be wearied by the Pietersen analysis. But the debate is understandable. History cannot be waved aside so easily.

And there seems to be tension between how many first-class matches England and Surrey would ideally like Pietersen to play before the Trent Bridge Test - three - and how much first-class cricket Pietersen wants to play, which is probably also three, except that he is counting in minutes. He has not wanted to play in the Championship since the days of the skunk hairstyle.

"It's unfortunate he is not playing in this Test match and in the Champions Trophy with injury," Cook said. "He's a world class player and in any line-up he will help. A lot of water has gone under that bridge from where we were a year ago.

"He's progressing well from his injury. There is obviously some more information over the next couple of weeks that we will receive. But chatting to him last week at Lord's he sounded positive, and fingers crossed. With injuries you're not quite sure how they're healing but it sounded as if he was making good progress."

Pietersen has a right to be regarded as an automatic selection. His knee injury is just that, an injury, not yet worthy of MI6 investigation. No matter how long his Ashes warm-up, or how brilliant the stand-ins might be at Headingley over the next five days, Cook would not contemplate any debate over Pietersen's right to an Ashes place.

"I think we all know when, hopefully, Kevin comes back and he is fit, his record and his class demands that he plays for England pretty much," he said. "His record allows him to do that. If any batter scores runs it's very hard to leave him out. That's how selection works.

"So of course that creates competition for places and the guys in the changing room will be desperate to score runs. That's good for us in this game because we need as many runs as we can. I don't think it will give the batsmen any extra motivation because I don't think you need any extra motivation when you're playing for England, but we all know that's the situation."

England have no intention of being pressganged into making room for Pietersen by dropping Nick Compton and moving Joe Root up the order. They have made their plans around Compton, even while recognising his limitations, Root is relishing his early Test cricket lower in the order, and Jonny Bairstow, the favourite to be omitted when Pietersen returns, has not done enough to challenge that preconception.

"I'm sure down the line at some stage in the future of course you will see Joe Root opening the batting, because that's where he bats, but Compo's got the shirt at the moment and he fully justifies that selection," Cook said. "We all know selection can change, of course it can. But Compo has shown us the determination and the talent he's got at the top of the order and the character you need to fight there and he's got to continue doing that."

The media cannot get through the day without considering the Ashes, so much so that the Champions Trophy - which brings the best eight nations to England next month for an ICC world event - might as well be taking place in Bolivia. England, meanwhile, have been accused of banning talk of the Ashes. Perhaps the players have a better sense of proportion.

Cook dismissed suggestions that it extended as far as a ban: "We've got to make it quite clear the word has not been banned in the changing room, it's just very important as a sports team and as cricketers that you stay in the present; that's how you have to live your life.

"We all know that's how you have to operate in the here and now. So you remind everyone that's how we operate and that's how you get the best results, because if you start thinking about what could happen you can take your eye off the ball. I don't think any of the guys have been doing that. I think we've been fantastic in this series so far."

For those of you who can't concentrate over the next five days, the Ashes start on July 10.

David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo