At 0-1 down after two Tests, nothing but a win in the third Test against South Africa can save England's crown.
After winning the third Test against India on August 13, 2011, England put themselves on top of the Test rankings ladder. They went on to steam-roll India in the fourth Test, completing a historic 4-0 whitewash. But just a shade over an year after dismantling their colonial cousins, England now stare at being dismantled.
One-nil down after a loss and a draw in two Tests, England will step gingerly on the Lord's field for the third Test against South Africa, where even a draw will not be enough. England will have to level the series at 1-1, otherwise they can kiss the Test mace goodbye.
The series comes out of the Olympics shadow for this third Test, and England need to shift their focus after it was left obscured by Kevin Pietersen's antics.
Pietersen's tirade from the bunker couldn't have been more ill-timed. And when he finally came out of his hideout to accept the 'textual' sneer, it made the situation even more embarrassing for English cricket. It's like being ridiculed by your own men in front of visitors at home.
But ECB bit the bullet and dropped Pietersen – the man who kept the series alive by earning England a draw in the second Test after the hosts lost the first by an innings and 12 runs. The maverick first stroked a dismissive 149 and then rolled his arm over to pocket South Africa's top three. But what he did off the field after that demeaned it – forcing ECB to not let him affect the dressing room.
But England can't keep dwelling on the fact that they have lost their key man – at least for the next five days when they battle to prevent their Test crown from falling down.
The Lord's Test – besides being a decider for the Test throne – also holds significance for Gary Kirsten, who is on the verge of a unique achievement of taking two teams to the top of Test rankings in his consecutive coaching stints – first India and now South Africa.
Kirsten left Team India after winning the World Cup to take up a coaching offer by Cricket South Africa. And within a space of two months, he is at Lord's with one hand already on the Test mace - this time with Graeme Smith.
"Some people say we are not sure about the rankings, do they hold any water?" Kirsten said. "But deep down every team aspires to and would like to know that they are the No. 1 team in the world." That clearly outlines Kirsten is in no mood to give England any window of opportunity to save their crown.
England are not used to losing at home of late, especially after overwhelming India to get on top. They have been on song from that point on – until South Africa rammed Andrew Strauss's men down in the first Test of this series. And nobody would have ruled them down even at 0-1 down but for this Pietersen saga. For some it has spoiled the mood of the series and for some it has spiced it up even more – for it presents England a challenge to win their most important Test of the last decade without their most dependable player of late.