Chris Waters: Pietersen remains elephant in the Long Room

ANY WAY BACK? England's Kevin Pietersen.
ANY WAY BACK? England's Kevin Pietersen.
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IF I had a blank sheet of paper and carte blanche to pick anyone I wanted, my top-five for the third Ashes Test would be: Alastair Cook, Adam Lyth, Joe Root, Kevin Pietersen and Jonny Bairstow.

In that order.

Unfortunately, Mr Pietersen is persona non grata and his enforced absence continues to cast a dark shadow over English cricket, as well as cause a number of unwanted knock-on effects.

When all is going swimmingly well, as it was for the most part of last summer when England were comfortably beating India, the Pietersen issue is not an issue.

England can get on perfectly well without him, thank you very much, and Gary Ballance can make mountains of runs at No 3.

Unfortunately, when all is not going swimmingly well, as it is not right now after the 405-run defeat to Australia at Lord’s, Pietersen is still the elephant in the room.

It all boils down to this: who would Australia least like to see striding out to bat at Edgbaston on Wednesday – Pietersen or Ian Bell?

There is no need to phone a friend in Adelaide or Alice Springs to answer that question.

When Andrew Strauss, the England director of cricket, announced on his first day in charge that there would be no way back for Pietersen, he made a big mistake in my view.

Not only did the policy appear vindictive, with Strauss having had previous with the player over a certain matter involving some text messages, it was also contradictory as he simultaneously offered him the chance – predictably rejected – to act as an advisor in one-day cricket.

On the one hand, Strauss effectively said that Pietersen was unselectable due to issues of trust.

On the other, he trusted him sufficiently to seek his advice to formulate policy.

No conflict there, then.

Now before we go any further, it should be stated that this column does not turn a blind eye to the fact that Pietersen is, how shall we put it, high maintenance.

It does not like the strut and the self-absorption.

As a cricketer, however, it considers Pietersen to be one of the best batsmen that England have ever had, and one of the greatest entertainers the game has ever seen.

It also considers that Pietersen is not beyond managing properly – by a Trevor Bayliss or a Jason Gillespie – instead of being cast aside, never to return.

Because England will not even consider Pietersen, not even as a short-term fix to get them out of a temporary hole, they are cutting off their nose to spite their face, as well as denying spectators the chance to watch him taking on the likes of Mitchell Johnson and Mitchell Starc.

The final day of the Cardiff Test, which England won by 169 runs, attracted a television audience of 467,000 – not significantly more than that for a 1974 episode of Columbo being shown at the same time on ITV3.

You will find no greater fan of Columbo than myself, but we kid ourselves if we believe that cricket in general, and the Ashes in particular, is capturing the public imagination if that is the case.

Just one more thing...

No series has done that, indeed, since the 2005 Ashes, after which cricket was taken off free-to-air and sold to Sky.

Beyond such wider implications for the game’s future, Pietersen’s absence has graphically highlighted the shortcomings of the England top-order, hence the tinkering for the Edgbaston Test.

Jonny Bairstow has been recalled on the back of a Pietersen-esque sequence in county cricket – 980 runs at an average of 108.66 – and will bat at No 5, with Root moving up one to No 4 and Bell going up one to No 3.

While the decision to promote Bell is seen as his last-chance saloon, and also particularly unfortunate for Ballance, whose recent statistics are comparable, it also impacts on Root, whose output at No 5 has been hugely successful.

In 16 Tests in that position, Root averages 72 and has hit six of his seven Test hundreds.

England, clearly, were loathe to move him, but they had no option if they will not choose Pietersen as a place simply had to be found for Bairstow, of whom it would be too much to ask, perhaps, to slot straight back in at No 4.

Some will point to the Michael Clarke situation as a reason not to shift Root, with the Australia captain averaging 61 at No 5 and 31 at No 4, but I would personally play the Yorkshireman at No 3.

Although it theoretically exposes him to the new ball earlier (although not much earlier given that England are regularly 30-3), his technique has improved and he began his career as an opening batsman, while he can shape the game better from No 3.

As for Pietersen, I noticed that he tweeted the other day the following pearl: “Ridiculous that I’m lying on a beach when I should be in UK prepping for the 3rd Test!! So silly really! Sad!”

It was utterly preposterous, of course, and yet utterly true.