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300,000 litres of water poured onto Edgbaston in two days, groundsman reveals

Edgbaston’s groundsman has warned England they will struggle to extract seam movement from this week’s first Ashes Test pitch.

Ben Stokes opted against selecting Mark Wood – his only bowler to reach speeds above 90mph consistently – for the opener which gets under way on Friday, but Gary Barwell told i he expects his track to be “pretty flat”.

Barwell compared the upcoming pitch to England’s high-scoring seven-wicket victory against India last July, in which Jonny Bairstow scored hundreds in both innings and Joe Root blasted a second-innings 142.

“The pitch should be pretty similar,” he explained. “It was pretty flat, there wasn’t much seam movement, wasn’t a lot of spin. There’s not been a lot of seam movement here this year. There was uneven bounce towards the end of that game, but England said they loved it.”

Barwell pointed to the pitch from the 2019 Edgbaston Test as another good example of the “genuine” pitch he’s aiming to create – one on which Steve Smith scored hundreds in each innings of that game as Australia won by 251 runs.

These conditions may disadvantage England’s three starting seamers Stuart Broad, James Anderson and Ollie Robinson without the much-vaunted “point of difference” Wood offers.

Barwell also warned that winning the toss could be crucial for England’s hopes of success.

“We prepare the Ashes pitch the same way we prepare every pitch – the idea is you have no surprises,” he said. “To define my pitches, you get out what you put in. As a bowler, if you work hard you’ll get wickets, but as a batter you can get runs. You’ve got to be careful, if you don’t get wickets in that first hour, it is quite flat.”

Barwell denied Stokes had ordered “fast, flat wickets” for the series, something the England captain publicly expressed in April, but he may get his wish nonetheless.

And while the pitch is progressing well, Barwell, who has overseen 11 Tests since taking over as Edgbaston’s head of sports turf and grounds in 2011, admitted the weather still posed a significant concern.

“It’s in a good state, we’ve got a nice grass covering on it. There’s a lot of water in it – because it’s been so dry, we’ve pumped just short of 300,000 litres of water into it just to keep it alive. If you walk on it, it’s wet in places, but that’s my idea. Monday and Tuesday, we won’t water, then Wednesday we will water little sections.

“On Wednesday and Thursday everyone will be asking why it’s covered, but you have to protect it from the sun as much as the rain.”

Admitting he’s something of a crowd-pleaser, Barwell explained his ideal pitch is one which produces the best games for fans: “The only people I’m endeared to are the paying public, people that love cricket.

“In theory, we’ll see nice carry and bounce on day one and the team bowling first get a bit of sideways movement, then it flattens out to become a good batting pitch for days two and three and into four.

“You still want defensive nicks to carry to the slips, but hopefully by day four there’ll be some wear and tear, some spin. In an ideal world it’s 300 for 10 most days – then everyone has seen some good cricket.”

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - AUGUST 04: Steven Smith of Australia salutes the crowd as he leaves the field after being dismissed by Chris Woakes of England during day four of the 1st Specsavers Ashes Test between England and Australia at Edgbaston on August 04, 2019 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)
Steve Smith’s back-to-back hundreds at Edgbaston put England on the back foot in the 2019 Ashes (Photo: Getty)

While Barwell’s ethos of prioritising entertainment aligns with the Bazball philosophy on-pitch, it can clash the England and Wales Cricket Board’s (ECB) outlook.

“The ECB do some amazing work, but every pitch gets independently marked by a match referee, which is all opinion-based,” he explained. “It’s like a school having Ofsted in, but it’s every matchday. The criteria the referees have to work with is very harsh.

“Because the ECB are so critical all the time, they don’t experiment, they don’t have ideas – there’s sometimes a comment that they’re ‘happier with average’. They don’t look at best practice or who’s doing well. It’s very draconian – it’s not carrot, it’s stick.

“In other sports, our ideas are nurtured a little bit more. I’d like us to work together towards a common goal of producing the world’s best pitches.

“They don’t do enough to support grounds staff – not just financially – I’ve never had any training from the ECB. They could do a lot more to support and promote what we do. They talk about wellbeing, but nobody from the ECB will ask me before this match ‘how are you?’, yet Brendon McCullum and Stokes will.”

Barwell also offered an insight into the pressure placed on grounds staff ahead of a big game – while a good pitch is often easily forgotten, a poor one lives long in the memory.

“I always say that behind every pitch is a person. My head isn’t the greatest place to be on the morning of a game, but you want your pitch to do the talking. You want to do the game proud. I’m pretty good at analysing after, but I beat myself up quite a bit.

“My anxiety and stress levels will be through the roof. Once it’s started, there’s nothing you can do.”

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