KP looms large as England seek win

SA look to topple hosts from top of Test rankings

Rarely has all the talk in the build-up to a Test been dominated by a man who will not be playing in the match.

 England coach Andy Flower (left) and skipper Andrew Strauss have to get the team’s focus back on cricket. AFP

Yet England’s dramatic decision to drop Kevin Pietersen from the third Test at Lord’s starting on Thursday, allegedly over text messages he sent to South African players during the drawn second Test at Headingley, has inevitably put the focus on their absent star batsman.

The South Africa-born shotmaker averages nearly 50 in Tests and made a superb 149 at Headingley, where he drove South Africa fast bowler Dale Steyn back over his head for six.

By contrast Jonathan Bair­stow, the man who will replace Pietersen, was dropped after playing his first three Tests against the West Indies earlier this season and has an average of under 13 with a top score of 18.

Yet England have decided there are bigger issues than the possible loss of their world number one Test ranking, which they will surrender to South Africa unless they win at Lord’s.

Bairstow struggled with the short ball against the West Indies a fact sure to have been noted by Steyn and fellow fast bowler Morne Morkel, even if the Yorkshireman arrives at Lord’s on the back of 139 for the England Lions against Australia ‘A’.

Fast-medium bowler Tim Bresnan did his best to stick up for county colleague Bairstow by suggesting England could be an improved side without Pietersen.

‘Better side’

“It may be an even better side, it’s one of those things where a talented player is being replaced by another talented player,” Bresnan said. “So why should we miss a certain individual because he’s unavailable for selection?”

But even those closest to Bairstow might struggle to believe that -- at least for the time being.

Meanwhile South Africa all-rounder Jacques Kallis said England would be a weaker side without Pietersen.

“He’s a world-class player ... England losing him is a big loss for them.
“Any time he’s not in your side it does make a big difference.”

However, Kallis added: “Cricket’s not a one-man sport. There are 11 guys who can take a Test match away from us.”

The match will see Strauss make his 100th Test appearance and lead his country in Tests for the 50th time.

This match is also set to witness Smith, like Strauss a left-handed opener, break Australia great Allan Border’s record of 93 Tests as a captain.

The 31-year-old Smith has been captain in all but eight of his Tests and likes Lord’s almost as much as Strauss, having made a superb 259 at ‘the home of cricket’ in 2003.

Smith’s two previous tours of England have featured the resignation of the then England captain (Nasser Hussain in 2003 and Michael Vaughan in 2008) and Strauss could go the same way if England lose at Lord’s.

England are set to recall off-spinner Graeme Swann after opting for an all-seam attack at Headingley.

Lord’s officials have said the outfield will resemble a “patchwork quilt” after the ground hosted the Olympic archery tournament, but have insisted it will be fit for play.

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