Scandal dogs battle for cricket supremacy
IT SEEMS perverse that the focus of the third and final international, which will decide the best test-playing nation in the world, is dominated by an England player who is not even in the squad.
The Kevin Pietersen saga will not go away, much to the frustration of England captain Andrew Strauss, who, by the way, starts his 100th test match today at Lord's.
It is also his 50th as captain, but none can have been more fraught and so distracted by internal politics.
Strauss puts on a brave face and, indeed, England may well be a more bonded and harmonious unit, but there is no getting away from the fact that their middle order will be more fragile.
Jonny Bairstow, brought in at the last minute for Pietersen, cannot help but feel intense pressure - especially if he is expected to bat at four.
He was criticised in the West Indies series for a perceived weakness to the short ball, which will certainly be tested. He also has a weight of expectation on his shoulders.
It is the same for James Taylor, who acquitted himself well on debut in Leeds with a resolute 34, but the stakes are much higher here.
Even more pressing for the England selectors is the dynamics of their bowling attack, for - barring any generous declaration - they will have to take 20 wickets against a batting line-up which has shown it can weather the storm in any conditions. To this end, off-spinner Graeme Swann, a notable omission at Headingley, will return.
Then the merits of the tall bang-em-in Steve Finn against the more metronomic Tim Bresnan will come to the fore.
Both were expensive at Leeds, but Finn may have been hampered by the dead-ball ruling which came into play when he continually disturbed the stumps - and Bresnan is the stronger batsman.
In the meantime, Graeme Smith is preparing for his 94th test match as captain, overtaking Australia's Allan Border as the longest-serving captain.
The Pietersen affair, he said, has not affected preparations.
"I am amazed that it is still going on," he said yesterday.
"We saw it break on Monday and thought that would be it, but it just got bigger and bigger. It will be nice to play some cricket."
He was keen to discount the absence of Pietersen as an advantage for South Africa.
"They have such a depth of world-class talent and a base of confidence which we must respect," he said.
"For us to sit back and take things for granted is not the way we prepared and the way we trained. We came here to play the best possible cricket and be the better team, and that is our only aim."
England have not lost at Lord's in 13 tests, winning six - while South Africa have won three of their last four here. South Africa have a stability which England do not, but England have desperation to fuel them. It may be an interesting mix.