Only runs can stop Pietersen bandwagon
England may have several Tests and two opponents to play before this summerís Ashes Series, but there can be no doubting the focus and priority is always going to be on the visit of Australia in 2015.
Alastair Cook and his team-mates may be in the thick of the First Test of three against the West Indies, with two more to come against New Zealand before Australia arrive, but these next three months are all about shaping the side and building momentum for the challenge of facing the World Cup winners in Cardiff on July 8.
After being whitewashed in the last Ashes Series down under, there is much at stake for England, even more so after their own dismal World Cup campaign when they failed to make it to the knock-out stages.
With upheaval ongoing behind the scenes as well, as Colin Graves prepares to come in as ECB chairman, and the likes of former Test captains Michael Vaughan and Andrew Strauss continue to vye to to replace Paul Downton as managing director, there is no shortage of distractions. And thatís before we even mention the seemingly permanent spectre of Kevin Pietersen.
England need to demonstrate against the West Indies and New Zealand they can focus on putting their game back together if they want to be in a position to avoid another Ashes whitewash.
The early signs in Antigua were slightly disconcerting when Jonathan Trott, playing in his first Test since leaving the last Ashes tour due to a stress-related problem, was out for a three-ball duck. Trott nicked Jerome Taylor to Darren Bravo at first slip and he was on his way back to the dressing room. It certainly wasnít the return he was hoping for.
With captain Cook and Gary Ballance quickly following Trott, England were in trouble and a First Test shambles in the Caribbean was the last thing they could afford on the back of the World Cup horror show.
Yet, not for the first time in his career, Ian Bell steadied the ship and was ably supported by Joe Root to put England back in a commanding position.
It was further proof, if any were needed, that Bell and Root must be the fulcrum of the batting order when Australia do come to town. Bell was the highest runs scorer in the summer of 2013 when England won the Series 3-0, and Root was third on that list behind Pietersen.
It is the top three which must be giving the selectors and fans cause for concern. As captain, Cook isnít going to be dropped, but he has not scored a Test century in almost two years since the last time New Zealand visited England.
As for Trott, he will have to prove he can still score runs at Test level. The one positive is that it can hardly get worse for him next time. A century maker against Australia on his Test debut in 2009, Trott also scored two unbeaten centuries in Australia in 2010. However, he struggled for form in the last Ashes Series on home soil and he will need to score heavily against the West Indies and New Zealand if he is to make the team this time around.
Balance, meanwhile, has scored three centuries for England batting at number three, but facing Australia at home will be a much sterner test than he has faced to date in his Test career. Therefore, it all comes back to the Pietersen conundrum and whether or not he should be recalled.
Pietersen was Englandís highest run scorer in the last Ashes series, but he has not played since the final Test held in Sydney in January last year. He clearly remains a divisive figure, but he has quickly found his groove back at Surrey after scoring 170 against Oxford MCCU. After that knock, Pietersen stated that Graves has told him it is a clean slate for everybody and that he wants the best players to be playing for England.
For all the issues that are attached with Pietersen, he remains one of Englandís best players and is worthy of a recall to the fold on that basis. It is whether a harmonious team without Pietersen is better than a slightly fraught dressing room which includes Pietersen.
Recent evidence would suggest that England may be better served to go for the latter, if they want a realistic chance of regaining the Ashes. At 2/1 to win the series with Betfair, that would certainly look a big price, in the event that Pietersen returns to the fold of course.
With Australia in a position to leave out the likes of Glenn Maxwell from their Ashes squad, England do not have the same strength in depth to be able to continue to ignore Pietersen.
If runs are not forthcoming from the top order against the West Indies and New Zealand, then a compromise must surely be reached to facilitate Pietersenís return to the team for the Ashes.