England's Pietersen dilemma August 11, 2012

Selectors consider Pietersen omission

The stability that underpinned England's ascent to No. 1 in the Test rankings is most noticeably absent as they select their side for, arguably, the most important Test they have played since the Ashes were decided at The Oval in 2009.

For several years, the announcement of England's Test squad has been a welcomingly predictable episode. Barring injury or prolonged loss of form, life contained few surprises.

But not this time. This time, as England try to select a team that must beat South Africa at Lord's in order to retain their No. 1 status, the selectors are faced with a major dilemma: do they drop their best player or retain him in the knowledge that his presence risks compromising team spirit. In short, do Kevin Pietersen's positive qualities outweigh his negative ones?

The news that he has exchanged texts with members of the South Africa team comes in the same week that his post-match press conference at Headingley revealed the extent of the tension between the two parties.

There can be, at this stage, no doubt that Pietersen's presence is a distraction in the dressing room. As if the speculation about his possible World Twenty20 inclusion was not enough, there is also doubt about his Test future and his relationship with other players. Whatever the content of text messages sent to players in the South Africa side, the episode has done nothing to diminish the growing division and suspicion building between Pietersen and his England colleagues. Some of them have been ambivalent about Pietersen for some time. This new episode - an episode viewed as a betrayal by some - means that ambivalence is now one of the warmer emotions expressed towards him.

He is respected as a player, though. If there were any doubts over his unrivalled skills - in England, anyway - with the bat, they were dispelled in Leeds. Pietersen was magnificent. He played the sort of innings that would demand inclusion in any team.

That should probably be the bottom line for the selectors. Rather than over-complicating the process with talk of principle or team spirit, the selectors should stick to picking the best 11 individuals and trust in the players' professionalism. Just as Pietersen and Andy Flower managed to work together after the debacle that saw Pietersen sacked as captain - and he was sacked as captain whatever revisionist ECB spin may suggest - and Peter Moores sacked as coach, so the players should be mature enough to work with those with which they may not naturally socialise.

In truth, recent stories amount to little more than playground tittle-tattle. Does it really matter if a few England team-mates laughed at a parody Twitter account or if Pietersen was mildly mocking of his team-mates in a private text message? It is surely more important that everyone within the England dressing room concentrates on winning the Test and does not use issues from the past week to further their own agendas against rival factions.

There is little doubt that the selectors are torn, though. Their appetite for Pietersen-related baggage is more than sated. If they could afford to be rid of him, they would surely take that chance.

There are faults on both sides. Pietersen has a legitimate gripe by complaining about leaks emanating from the ECB and it is hard not to wonder if, in a more sophisticated dressing room, he might not have been managed better. Surely Mike Brearley, for example, might have coaxed the best from him as he did such diverse characters as Sir Ian Botham, Geoffrey Boycott and Phil Edmonds. Perhaps a little more carrot and a little less stick might have worked wonders on Pietersen?

England, it should be noted, have won without Pietersen before. He played little role in the Ashes success of 2009 and none in the recent ODI victories over Australia. He is no more irreplaceable than any other England player of the past and, just as West Indies managed without Sobers and Australia managed without Bradman, England will manage without Pietersen.

He is not easy to replace, though. With Ravi Bopara still absent for personal reasons - an episode that may have damaged his own Test career irreversibly - there is no obvious replacement for Pietersen. Jonny Bairstow, fresh from his century against Australia A, might be considered, so might Eoin Morgan, who has the character if not the technique to flourish at this level.

Chris Woakes is a more rounded solution. If Pietersen were dropped, Ian Bell, James Taylor and Matt Prior could shuffle up a position with Woakes coming in at No. 7. It is asking a great deal of anyone to come into such an important game against such high-quality opposition but Woakes has the ability, with bat and with ball, to shine. Just as importantly, he has a rock solid character that will not be flustered by the occasion. England will never have a moment of worry about the ego of Woakes.

Graeme Swann is sure to be named in the team on Thursday - omitting him at Leeds was a huge error of judgement - with a late choice required over which of Steven Finn, Graham Onions and Tim Bresnan plays alongside Stuart Broad and James Anderson. All are likely to be named in the squad, with home ground advantage likely to favour Finn, despite a disappointing display at Leeds.

Whatever is revealed in Sunday's squad announcement, it seems we are coming to the end of the Pietersen story. In the long term, we may reflect on the episode as one of the great wasted opportunities in the history of England cricket. Talents like Pietersen appear rarely. That the ECB have failed to handle him - a man who must be considered one of their most precious resources - does not reflect well on them.

Make no mistake, though. However much England cricket misses Pietersen over the coming weeks and months, he will miss it more. His premature departure, at this point seemingly inevitable, will leave him many years to reflect upon the mistakes that have led him so far along this path. He will surely come to regret that he has allowed his pride and a series of petty incidents to have built up into a career-threatening scenario.

Pietersen might also reflect long and hard on his own role in his alienation. As Oscar Wilde almost said, to fall out with one team may be considered unfortunate, but to fall out with Natal, Nottinghamshire, Hampshire and England? You do not have to be a genius to work out the common denominator.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo