- England and South Africa are the top two ranked sides in world cricket
- England need to win to maintain their number one ranking
- Kevin Pietersen has been dropped after "provocative" text messages sent to opposition
- Pietersen has apologized, but is yet to discover if he will play again
Is a star player more important than team unity? England's cricketers will find out the answer to that question over the next five days as they battle to retain the No. 1 Test ranking without key batsman Kevin Pietersen.
Pietersen, one of the most flamboyant and controversial players in the game, has been dropped for the showdown with South Africa -- the country of his birth -- after falling out with his teammates.
England's preparations for the third and final Test of the series, which they must win to stop the Proteas taking top spot, have been dominated by a scandal over derogatory text messages, an ill-advised YouTube video and a parody Twitter account.
All of which involved Pietersen in some form.
The 32-year-old issued an apology on Wednesday for sending text messages to the South African players during the drawn second Test which apparently criticized England captain Andrew Strauss -- who celebrates his 100th appearance in the five-day game at Lord's this week.
But it was too late to stop him being thrown out of the squad and now seemingly unlikely to be named on Saturday in England's team for the Twenty 20 World Cup in Sri Lanka starting next month.
"I did send what you might call provocative texts to my close friends in the SA team," said Pietersen.
"The texts were meant as banter between close friends. I need to rein myself in sometimes. I apologize 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."
The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), however, has refused to say whether Pietersen will ever play for England again.
"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," said ECB managing director Hugh Morris.
"Critically, those discussions should take place behind closed doors, rather than in the media spotlight.
"A successful conclusion to this process is in everyone's best interests and is required for Kevin Pietersen's potential selection in all forms of the game to be considered."
The South Africa series presents England's biggest challenge since regaining the number one ranking last year. Strauss' side lost the first Test and drew the second, with Pietersen scoring a defiant 149 before making an unexpected statement at the press conference casting doubt over his international future.
"It's tough for me in this dressing room," he said
Rumors of "provocative" text messages sent to some of the South African players increased the pressure on Pietersen.
The South African camp, however, dismissed the texts and claimed that the ECB hadn't even asked them to see the messages before they dropped Pietersen.
"Text messages were sent, but it was banter," said team manager Mohammed Moosajee.
"The ECB has not made a formal approach to see the text messages as is currently being reported in the media."
Pietersen has always been a controversial figure, with England's management tolerating him due to his undeniable talent.
He is one of a handful of England players to play in the lucrative Indian Premier League -- where he plays alongside several of the South African players -- and earlier this year retired from the national team's one-day and Twenty 20 teams, apparently so he could play more limited-overs cricket in India and Australia.
In a remarkable turn of events on Saturday, Pietersen released a YouTube video in which he reversed his retirement, committed himself to English cricket and attempted to explain some of the recent controversy. Crucially, he failed to apologize for the text messages.
"I've had a change of heart because I love playing cricket for England, I love being part of a successful England team," said Pietersen.
"It would be sad for me to finish with the way things have been running through the media in the last three or four days -- it would be sad to end my career like this.
"So sitting down with my family, my advisers, my close friends, we've decided and I've decided it would be a lot better to finish my career on a positive note rather than one that's being developed at the moment."
The video didn't go far enough for the ECB, who instead called up promising youngster Jonny Bairstow.
Pietersen is a regular on microblogging site Twitter, but was said to be furious when a parody account was set up -- called "KP Genius" -- and it was followed by several senior England players.
The were suggestions that one of Pietersen's colleagues was responsible for the account, which had joked that Pietersen was motivated solely by money and thought he was better than the rest of the England squad.
Eventually, a man called Richard Bailey, who describes himself as "an England cricket fan,"admitted he set up the account.
To further complicate matters Stuart Broad, captain of England's Twenty 20 side, is friends with Bailey. The ECB was forced to put out a statement on Broad's behalf on Tuesday, less than 36 hours before the crucial Test got under way, denying any involvement with the account.
"Following the statement by Mr. Richard Bailey that he was responsible for creating a parody Twitter account in Kevin Pietersen's name, I would like to confirm that I had no involvement in this whatsoever," said Broad.
"I met with the managing director of England cricket, Hugh Morris, and assured him that I did not play any role in the creation of this account or provide Mr. Bailey with any information regarding Kevin Pietersen or the England team.
"As has been widely reported Mr. Bailey is a friend of mine, but we had no conversations regarding this issue at all and I am pleased that he has now decided to close the parody account down."
South Africa captain Graeme Smith described the situation as "amazing," and claimed that in the visitors' dressing room the matter has "hardly been discussed."
"From our perspective it's just been so overboard really. I can't believe it's still carrying on," he said.
Smith, who is due to captain his country for a record-breaking 94th time at Lord's, described Pietersen as "world class, and warned England that it would be "wrong" to say "they're not going to miss him."