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banner Friday, 29 June, 2001, 14:20 GMT 15:20 UK
Pitching in for the Ashes
Warwickshire's head groundsman Steve Rouse
Steve Rouse tends to the square at Edgbaston
by BBC Sport Online's Steve Beauchampé

It is several years since Edgbaston provided a really good Test match wicket.

With the Ashes series beginning there next week, there is pressure on head groundsman Steve Rouse to deliver something special.

A flat wicket, offering assistance for both bowlers and batsmen, with turn on the fourth and fifth days, is Rouse's goal, and serious preparations began in April.

"We have 16 first-class wickets at Edgbaston but the choice of Test wicket usually comes down to three or four," he said.

"We're required to provide even length boundaries and I must also consider the placement of my covers and flat sheets, so it's got to be somewhere in the middle.

"My assistant, Rob Franklin, and I will assess the options and decide on both a Test pitch and a wicket for our one-day international match. Then we cut the grass down, re-seed and top dress them."

West Indies fast bowler Franklyn Rose dismisses Alec Stewart
England lost in three days at Edgbaston last summer

But Rouse has to take special precautions during Warwickshire's last two home games prior to a Test.

"We put a black germination sheet over the wicket, which isn't ideal, particularly when it's sunny.

"The sheet doesn't stop players from diving - and you wouldn't expect them to - but it does make them aware of the pitch during the general course of a match," he explained.

"I try to place it some distance from the Test strip, and in a position where both cover and mid-wicket fielders won't be repeatedly diving on the sheet and scarring the pitch."

Once Warwickshire's last game is finished, Rouse and his team really get to work.

"The sprinklers go on overnight and we aim to soften the ground to a depth of six or seven inches, but we use long-range weather forecasts to help determine how much we subsequently water the pitch.

"What I'm looking for is a surface with a good covering of grass, white, with bit of pace and carry but not too quick."

We roll it every day but take care to avoid it cracking or drying
  Steve Rouse

As the first morning of a Test approaches, Rouse's worst nightmare is humidity.

He said: "A hot, sticky morning will make the ball swing. It's been an increased problem at Edgbaston, especially since the Wyatt Stand was built up, hampering airflow.

"With the extra heat generated from a 19,500 capacity crowd, this may well have contributed to some low first day Test scores. So I'll be very happy if it's cold."

But Edgbaston's problems with wickets go, quite literally, deeper than that, as Rouse explains.

"We got an agronomist (soil management specialist) to take samples from the square last year. He discovered a pan - a break - about two inches down, like an air gap.

"So we drained the square allowing the roots to go through, and this year some of the wickets have improved, which has been reflected in the umpires' early season pitch reports."

Alex Tudor on his way to 99 not out against New Zealand
Alex Tudor was England's match-winner in 1999

For the Test match, Rouse's normal staff of six rises to around 20, the extra hands principally used for getting the pitch covers on and off quickly.

"It makes a real difference, especially since we've given up on the 'Brumbrella' cover following numerous technical problems."

Rouse will also benefit from two 'Whales', provided by the England and Wales Cricket Board.

"They're really valuable for soaking up water on the outfield, but are too heavy for the square, where we'll use our own Waterhogs.

"It's not always appreciated that our work involves much more than simply preparing the wicket, square and outfield.

"The teams need to train so we must attend to the nets and other practice facilities and, with both teams permitted to use the pitch for practice, then our ability to prepare it is restricted."

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