Pietersen has been ruled out of the two-Test series against New Zealand in late May and early June because the knee injury that ended his tour of New Zealand last month is still causing problems. Officially England remain confident that he will be fit to play a full part in their attempt to win the Champions Trophy on home soil in June – which would remove any doubts about his Ashes availability – and have stressed that the injury is only "bruising".
But they have revealed that the 32-year-old will need another scan before being cleared even to resume training never mind playing for Surrey, and Pietersen fuelled an element of doubt by tweeting that he had his "fingers crossed" about playing in a fifth Ashes series. "Injuries are a sportsman's worst nightmare," he tweeted. "This one is hurting me the most."
His absence from the New Zealand series looks likely to hand an unexpected opportunity to Jonny Bairstow in the middle order. His career seems to be intertwined with that of Pietersen – he replaced him in the third New Zealand Test in Auckland and in the fourth Test against South Africa at Lord's last summer, after Pietersen had been dropped for disciplinary reasons.
Now Bairstow must be the favourite to play his seventh Test, and his third at Lord's, against New Zealand next month – before the second Test of the series on his home ground at Headingley. He fell behind his Yorkshire team-mate Joe Root during the winter, accumulating only 18 runs in three Test innings – two in Auckland, when his lack of time in the middle was palpable, and one against India before Christmas in the second Test in Mumbai. But he is thought to remain ahead of Eoin Morgan and Ravi Bopara in the queue for middle-order places. Both Morgan and Bopara are in the 30-man Performance Squad, Morgan with a full central contract whereas Bopara has only an incremental deal. But Morgan is currently in India and has been cleared to play the whole Premier League season for Kolkata Knight Riders, which would rule him out of the New Zealand series, and Bopara still has ground to make up after a poor 2012.
There is better news for England of Graeme Swann, another key man who suffered a pre-Ashes scare when he missed the whole series in New Zealand because of the recurrence of elbow problems that required a second operation. Nottinghamshire confirmed on Tuesday that he remains on course to play in their County Championship match against Durham which starts at Trent Bridge on 29 April, two weeks before the first Test against New Zealand.
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