Time to end Pietersen standoff
If ever there was any doubt about the importance of Kevin Pietersen to the England side - and there really should not have been - it was surely dispelled by his remarkable Test century at Headingley.
Against a South Africa seam attack of the highest class, on a pitch showing signs of uneven bounce and with his side in some trouble, Pietersen produced one of the finest hundreds this historic ground can have witnessed.
While some might resist Pietersen's claim to greatness by fault of some soft dismissals and a certain inconsistency, it is doubtful any of those fortunate enough to be present on the third day of this game would agree. Instead they may well reflect for a lifetime on the day they witnessed greatness in action. They can be no doubt that Pietersen is, at his best, a magnificent player.
This was certainly Pietersen at his best. It was not so much the number of runs he scored - impressive though that was - as the manner in which he scored them. In circumstances where his colleagues had prodded and poked, Pietersen thrashed high-quality bowling around the ground as if practising against a village team. Even a bowler as skilled as Dale Steyn was pummelled and plundered. As Allan Donald, South Africa's bowling coach and one of Pietersen's childhood heroes, said afterwards: "It reminded me of when I ran into Brian Lara. It was in the category of a genius."
His batting in recent months - from the ODI centuries in the UAE, to the IPL century, the Colombo century, and a double-century at Guildford of almost dazzling class - has attained standards reached by few. The man who he most resembled in this innings, in terms of mastery, bravado, strength and stature, was Sir Viv Richards. And there really isn't any higher praise than that.
It is far from the first time that Pietersen has rescued England. Just as the 2005 Ashes might well have had a different ending but for Pietersen's swashbuckling century at The Oval, so they might well be still searching for their first global trophy had it not been for Pietersen's brilliance in the Caribbean World Twenty20 in 2010.
It is a shame for all cricket lovers - not just England supporters - that it seems he will miss this year's event. Players like this appear so rarely, and while Pietersen can be drafted into England's World Twenty20 squad until August 18 without complication, it seems unlikely either side will compromise in the standoff over scheduling, rest and other opportunities.
And there is the rub for England. It is just possible that Pietersen is playing his penultimate Test. It is just possible that Pietersen's request to play the entire IPL season could see him decline the offer of a central contract in September. It is also just possible that Pietersen's complaints about the international schedule while making arrangements to play more T20 cricket around the world will have so irritated the England management that he will not be offered one.
England can live without Pietersen. Great players have come and gone before; the sun still set and the tide still came in. But there should be no doubt that England will be much diminished if they lose him. It is hard to think of another man in English cricket who could have played this innings, and without it, they would surely be facing an awkward final two days in this game.
Perhaps the timing of this innings was no coincidence. Perhaps it was Pietersen's way of stating his worth. If so, he made his case eloquently. He transformed an attritional day of cricket, where his side faced the possibility of the follow-on, into a riveting event that all who witnessed it will talk of for years. Cricket does not have so many players who can do that.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the current issues between Pietersen and the ECB, both sides need to try again to resolve their problem. It is time for the coterie of managers who work at the ECB to earn their corn and find a solution. Pietersen wants to play for England and England want him to play for them. Both parties will be weakened by a parting of ways. More importantly, so will world cricket.
"I've never batted better in my life," Pietersen said afterwards as he reflected on his form of the last few months. "My last two Test centuries have been my best two - Colombo for heat reasons - and today against an unbelievable bowling attack that never stops running in. To get runs against that attack is something I'll always cherish.
"I had a big wake-up call against Pakistan last winter. I was a bit overweight and I wasn't physically in as good nick as I should have been in that series. I averaged twelve and a half in those three Tests, which really hurt me, as I set myself high standards. It wasn't good enough.
"But I took it on the chin and I went and spent hours and hours in the nets with Mushtaq Ahmed. I spent all of June doing that in order to get in good nick for this series. It's just hard work and figuring out my game. Hard work pays off."
There was a heartening debut from James Taylor, too. For a 22-year-old who has played all but this season in the bottom tier of the County Championship to come into a high-pressure situation in a Test and help Pietersen add 147 was testament not just to his pluck but to the worth of county cricket. It is lazily denigrated by many, but the fact is that Cook, Strauss, Trott and Prior all scored centuries on Test debut, while Bell and Pietersen scored half-centuries. If players can step up and perform so readily, it must be a decent breeding ground.
Perhaps it was appropriate that Pietersen's best batting came when he was in partnership with the diminutive Taylor. Just as Pietersen dwarfed Taylor in terms of height, so he dwarfed his colleagues in terms of contribution and class.
While his excellence should not mask the flaws in England's batting - Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell were both out to hideous strokes - it has given them a chance to claw their way back into the game. There is still a great deal of work ahead - they trail by 68 - but if Pietersen and Co can build a substantial lead on day four, South Africa might yet face an uncomfortable final day on a wearing pitch.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo