Enough about KP, let's play! England must block out text furore and take fight to tourists
22:30 GMT, 15 August 2012
Andrew Strauss would never have dreamt that the build-up to his 100th Test for England would be like this.
Graeme Smith could never have imagined that the eve of his record-breaking 94th Test as captain would be so dominated by one absent opponent. Once again at Lord's everybody was talking about Kevin.
These two contrasting, highly successful skippers conducted themselves admirably in their different ways ahead of the decisive final Test, Strauss reasserting his authority by talking in strong terms about the Kevin Pietersen affair while Smith acted in a bemused, slightly prickly manner over a saga that has affected his team, too.
Quit talking: All the build-up to the final Test has surrounded Pietersen's absence
That Pietersen apology in full
I did send what you might call provocative texts to my close friends in the SA team. The texts were meant as banter between close friends. I need to rein myself in sometimes.
I apologise to Straussy and the team for the inappropriate remarks at the press conference and for the texts. I truly didn't mean to cause upset or tension particularly with important games at stake.
This is a hugely important Test, with England needing to win it not only to square the series but also to stop South Africa overtaking them as the best Test team in the world. Now we will see which captain will be able to cut through the distractions caused by a man who is close to neither.
At any other time there would be much debate about whether Strauss's position would be in any way threatened if England were to lose this game and the Investec series 2-0 and topple from their lofty perch after just a year.
Yet there has been such turmoil caused by the biggest crisis in English cricket since Pietersen clashed with coach Peter Moores, leading to Strauss and Andy Flower taking over, that surely England will want the incumbent's calm hand on the tiller even if South Africa triumph.
Strauss, as ever, cut a mightily authoritative figure yesterday as he faced up to the humiliating realisation that one of his team had been critical of him in texts to opponents and the chances of that undermining both his leadership and his team.
'Once the players became involved in Kevin's dispute with the board then I had to become very protective of our environment,' said Strauss. 'I have to be vigilant now about the values with which we live and treat each other because it is central to how we became a very good side.'
Smith, meanwhile, must be secretly delighted that England have been faced with such a divisive situation.
Back to basics: England spent the day training at cricket HQ before the biggest match of the year
The ECB response from Hugh Morris
We are in receipt of Kevin's apology, but further discussions need to take place to establish whether it is possible to regain the trust and mutual respect required to ensure all parties are able to focus on playing cricket and to maintain the unity of purpose that has served us so well in recent years.
He said: 'Kevin is obviously a world-class cricketer and for me to say that England won't miss him would be wrong. But there is a talent pool in English cricket that we need to respect. For us to sit back and take things for granted now is not the way we have prepared for this tour.'
South Africa will be firm favourites to achieve at least the draw they need here but England may yet surprise us and take strength from the adversity that has claimed their outrageously gifted batsman.
They have certainly seemed relaxed and happy in practice and would love to prove that, as in one-day cricket, they can win without Pietersen.
Strauss would give no clues as to whether England would change the balance of their side but it would be a huge surprise if they abandoned their four-bowler policy now, even though they desperately need to take 20 South African wickets on one of Mick Hunt's flawless Lord's pitches.
That means Jonny Bairstow will almost certainly step in to join James Taylor in the middle order, two hugely promising batsmen who have come through the ultra-professional England age-group and Lions structure.
Bairstow struggled against the short ball when faced with Kemar Roach against West Indies earlier this summer but the hope now is that he takes on bouncers rather than being caught in two minds by them. All he has to do is whack the bowling of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel. No pressure then, Jonny.
Firm focus: Coach Andy Flower and bowling coach David Saker watch on during the session at Lord's
His task would be made considerably easier if England already have a platform built for them by Strauss and the man who will replace him sooner or later as Test captain, Alastair Cook.
It is eight years since Strauss made such an auspicious debut here at Lord's against New Zealand and he makes his 100th appearance as a three-times Ashes winner and a captain in two of those series.
Now he wants to ensure he does not follow Michael Vaughan in losing to South Africa after conquering Australia.
'Good sides can draw strength from adversity and I'm certainly expecting us to do that,' said Strauss.
'Our preparation for this match has been far from ideal but I'm determined to enjoy and savour my 100th Test as much as I can.
'If I am distracted by the fact it is a milestone it is not going to help me play well, so we all need to concentrate now on playing in the way we know we can.'
Smith is a remarkable cricketer, having taken control as an abrasive 22-year-old and becoming a formidable, mature leader by the age of 31.
The man once derided by Pietersen as a 'muppet' prepares to lead his side to the summit of Test cricket if he can avoid defeat over the next five, compelling days.
No wonder Smith was smiling when the cameras were off him.
Laugh it up: Broad and Anderson see the funny side of things, despite the row rumbling on over KP
Big match stat attack – by Lawrence Booth
94 South Africa captain Graeme Smith will lead out a Test side for a record 94th time — 93 with South Africa and one as captain of the ICC World XI.
6 If Andrew Strauss marks his 100th cap by scoring a ton, he will equal the record for Test centuries at Lord’s of six, held by Graham Gooch and Michael Vaughan.
10 The fresh turf at Lord’s was grown near Scunthorpe and had to be cut, transported and laid within 10 hours. It replaced turf damaged by Olympic archery.
3 England have lost three of 25 Tests at Lord’s since the turn of the century, winning 14. But South Africa have proved a bogey team and won in 1994, 1998 and 2003.
4 Jimmy Anderson needs four wickets to become only the third bowler to claim 50 Test wickets at Lord’s. Currently he trails Sir Ian Botham (69), Fred Trueman (63) and Bob Willis (47).
2 Only two of South Africa’s current touring party are on the Lord’s honours boards: Smith for his 259 in 2003 and 107 in 2008. In the latter game, Hashim Amla also hit an unbeaten 104.
1 Not even a draw will preserve England’s No 1 Test ranking. A 1-0 series victory for South Africa would give them a lead of one-sixth of a point over the hosts, who must win at Lord’s to stay top.