The climax of the great debate
Pietersen or Graham Thorpe? That is the burning question. The brash young pretender whose star is in the ascendancy, or the gnarled veteran of 100 Tests and 12 years of international cricket, who is all too aware of the march of time, but who has earned the right for one final crack at the oldest enemy through sheer weight of performances.
There is no doubting, however, where the popular vote currently resides. All around England, a series of advertising hoardings for the series feature Pietersen, a man who has yet to play Test cricket, going head to head with Shane Warne, a man who did not feature in Australia's one-day campaign (except by association during his latest tabloid exposes).
The implication is obvious - these two are the box-office draws, the men who, without even playing, can capture the public's imagination. Get Pietersen in there, is the cry. It's what the fans want.
And yet, what the fans really want is for the Ashes to be returned after an 18-year interlude. That is the bottom line, and to that end, the box-office can go hang. Hell, England could even recall Chris Tavare to deadbat one end away if the selectors felt that his presence was the best means of blunting Australia's new-ball attack. The ends justify the means in all situations, especially when England take on Australia.
There was a certain irony this week that, at the very moment that Thorpe was proving his Ashes fitness with a cool 73 for Surrey, it was Pietersen who embarked on the latest fitness scare by tweaking his groin and leaving the field in the final NatWest Challenge match. Nevertheless, given his history of back problems, it seems inevitable that fitness is going to take some toll of Thorpe at some stage of an intense series. Reading the Ashes runes is like speculating ahead of last week's Olympic announcement, but the latest signs are that Thorpe is about to be pensioned off early.
There is little more that Thorpe could have done to state his case this summer. The Bangladesh series was a No. 5's worst nightmare, with oodles of runs on the board by the time he came to the crease in each match, but he responded with two cool unbeaten innings - solid, unspectacular fare that we have grown accustomed to down the years. In South Africa last winter, he was one of a host of players who dropped short of their absolute best, but a gritty and invaluable century at Durban was backed up by 86 at Centurion to put the series out of South Africa's reach. He came good when it really mattered, and that, ultimately, was all that mattered.
Pietersen, by contrast, has been less discriminating in his eight months as an international cricketer. He has been liable to throw the kitchen sink at all bowlers at all times, regardless of the match situation. It is an approach that has harvested him 736 runs in 15 innings, and several telling psychological hits on Jason Gillespie, but that leg-side bias has not gone unnoticed by Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee, who will be licking their lips at the prospects of unrestricted fields and a chance to turn the screw.
The issue of Thorpe's experience is something that is in danger of being overplayed. His mid-40s Ashes average has been buoyed in no uncertain terms by his prolonged absence from the frontline, for he has played just once in the last three Ashes series. It is impossible to express, however, how much it would mean to him to have one last crack at the Aussies, especially given all the trials and tribulations that he has suffered off the pitch.
That is not to say that Thorpe should be selected out of sympathy, merely that his hunger should not be questioned, even if the vibes he is giving off are not entirely "on-message". His attitude has always rankled with Graveney, who once fined him 1000 pounds for skiving an official dinner during the 1999 World Cup, but then attitude is something that England are going to need in spades come the sharp end of this summer.
The populist vote says Pietersen, who has momentum and the masses on his side; the common-sense call is for Thorpe, whose insouciance is a constant source of frustration for an image-conscious cricket board, but whose ability to come up with the goods time and time again cannot be ignored.
Thorpe is the last of a breed - the only England Test cricketer remaining from those dog-eat-dog days of the mid-1990s, when the toughest survived by watching their back and scoring their runs, and the weak were weeded out with a singular lack of ceremony. He has enjoyed his cricket more in the last two years than at any other stage of his career, but at the age of 36, he is a bit long in the tooth to start attracting the attention of the selectors by any means other than the means he knows best - as Mike Gatting once put it: "The only thing he brings to the party is runs."
Perhaps the final word, however, should go to Pietersen's most prominent cheerleader. It's not his mum; it's not even Pietersen himself. It's Shane Warne, his Hampshire captain and new best mate. Warne has been singing the man's praises since he first signed from Nottinghamshire for the start of this season, and he is adamant that Pietersen must play at Lord's. He is also adamant that Pietersen will be his 600th Test wicket. We shall see. In the meantime, however, England should remember the virtues of the quiet man. In matters of selection, it is not what the fans want that counts, but what the Australians would least like to see.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo