Pietersen out to silence detractors
Only three Tests have elapsed since Kevin Pietersen produced the highest score of his international career, an unanswerably dominant 227 against Australia in Adelaide that ended the longest run-drought of his career. Whether, however, that was a freakish deluge or the start of a new phase in his ceaselessly fascinating career is a question that looks set to dominate England's early-season agenda.
Pietersen was certainly talking the talk as he faced the press in Cardiff ahead of Thursday's first Test. With a firm desire to look to the future, but an avoidable urge to hark back to the recent past, he reiterated his ambition in all three formats of the game, while at the same time taking a swipe at those in the media whom he believes are out to get him.
In particular, he took umbrage at reports that surfaced during the World Cup that he was preparing to retire from one-day cricket. That story gathered momentum when Pietersen turned down Andy Flower's invitation to "bite the bullet" after being diagnosed with a hernia, and instead flew home from the campaign to undergo surgery - via a night out in a notorious London nightclub.
When asked if it was a mistake to be seen out on the town while his team-mates were struggling to avoid early elimination from the World Cup, Pietersen was defiant. "Not at all. I don't see why I can't spend some time with friends and family members I have not seen all winter. I was really, really down at the time and wherever I went, whatever I was going to do, it was going to make the papers. Would I do it again? Yes I would."
"I was in ridiculous amounts of pain, trying hard to get through it game-by-game," he said of his injury. "I was shocked [by Flower] because I knew the pain I was in, but it's gone, I have dealt with all that kind of stuff. I don't want to look back. Everyone tries to bring me back in press conferences but I just want to forget about stuff and continue looking forward. I am fit, very ready, and very raring to go. The bug is back."
But beyond the bravado, the doubts still linger. As England embark on the start of a new four-year cycle, with the stated aim of becoming the No. 1 nation in world cricket, Pietersen's place in the pecking order has never seemed so precarious, not least because his mindset has never been harder to second-guess. He finished the 2010 home season on the sidelines after being dropped for the first time during the one-day series against Pakistan, while his scores for Surrey this year - 30 and 48 against Cambridge MCCU, and 58 (out of 506) against Essex - are hardly definitive proof of his renewed hunger.
With England's top three of Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott set in stone, and Ian Bell firmly embedded in the middle order, Pietersen is at best the fifth batsmen out of six on the current team-sheet. With Eoin Morgan and Ravi Bopara scrapping hard for that final berth, it could be that such pressure is what he needs to push on towards the greatness he still believes is within his grasp.
"There is a lot of chat about all these pressures on players," said Pietersen. "I think the strength in depth in English cricket is amazing and there are probably only a couple in the team who are not under pressure and that's great.
"But there are so many people who say I'm not loving it, that cricket's not my thing anymore," he added. "I love cricket, cricket is my everything. I'm 30 years of age right now, what would I do tomorrow if I didn't have cricket? I have only achieved half of what I've achieved in the game. I want to get 10,000 Test runs, I'm only four or five hundreds away from having the most for an Englishman . I'm not far from what I want to achieve in the game.
"I just want a fair crack at it, because there's a lot of people saying things about me that are not true. A lot of people writing things about me that are not true, saying I want other things. I'm 30 years of age, I want to play for another five years. I don't want any more bouts of surgery, I want to get through doing what I want to do.
"I had a bad couple of years. I went away last September to do some soul-searching and sort myself out and tick some ticks and work with people who really know me inside out, and a month later I got a double-hundred in Adelaide and averaged 60 in the Ashes and I'm back playing as well as I have ever played. I am happy where I am as a cricketer at the moment."
Whether England are happy with where he is, is another matter entirely. Six years ago, when Pietersen exploded into Test cricket with his starring role in the 2005 Ashes, he was driven by a furious desire to prove his doubters wrong, and silence all those who criticised his motives and questioned his switch of allegiance from South Africa. Now, the doubters are mounting once again, but for vastly different reasons. Nevertheless, he knows what he needs to do to secure the last word.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo