Arena: Pioneers with grand ambition: 16 Edgbaston: Derek Pringle traces the history of a county and Test cricket ground which is laced with controversy

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The Independent Online
EDGBASTON began its life as a cricket ground in 1885 when a 12-acre meadow was leased from the estates of Lord Calthorpe for the sum of pounds 60 per annum. A further pounds 1,250 was spent on enclosure, drainage and the building of a wooden pavilion but for many years it was nothing but a cricketing backwater.

Today, the scene could hardly be more different. The ground is surrounded by functional stands, is a regular Test venue, and its county side, Warwickshire, are enjoying a season that their most optimistic of supporters could not have dreamed about 12 months ago, let alone in the 19th century.

Having already won the Benson and Hedges Cup, they are well placed to be the first team in history to win the grand slam and on Tuesday, the Birmingham ground will host a NatWest Trophy semi-final against Kent. Both counties have already met this season in knock-out competition. Warwickshire won a bowl-out in their indoor school after Edgbaston, with its much vaunted 'Brumbrella' not in place, had been flooded by heavy rain. Kent felt aggrieved and their quest for revenge will add extra zest to the match. But Edgbaston is used to controversy.

Two years ago, during the Test against Pakistan, there was uproar when spectators were refused their money back on the grounds that they had seen some play - albeit only two balls. Similar pandemonium broke out in 1902, when spectators stormed the gates after rain again threatened to deny the public - this time of the chance to see a thrilling English victory.

On the cricketing front, Brian Close was relieved of the England captaincy having brought the game into disrepute after deliberate gamesmanship there in a county match between Yorkshire and Warwickshire in 1967. Needing only 142 in 102 minutes to win, Warwickshire received only 24 overs, the last two taking 22 minutes.

Graham Gooch began his Test career in Birmingham in 1975, with a pair of ducks against Australia, while Brian Lara broke the world record individual score earlier this season, when he made an astounding 501 against Durham in the County Championship.

Edgbaston's transformation into one of England's prime cricket venues began in 1902, when it was awarded an Ashes match. To celebrate, the club erected one permanent stand and two temporary structures, as well as providing accommodation for 90 press men. This was the start of the ground development schemes that have occupied the club to the present day. More than 25,000 people saw Edgbaston's first Test, despite the rain that enabled Australia to hold on for a draw after Wilfred Rhodes's seven for 17 had helped to skittle them out for 36 in their first innings and caused the ugly scenes outlined above.

However, most of what is there today, apart from the old pavilion, is the brainchild of Lesley Deakins, the club's long-serving secretary. During the Second World War, Deakins spent many a long hour dreaming of Edgbaston and he scribbled his plans on the back of an envelope while fulfilling his watch duties on Scapa Flow. Once the war was over it was not long before his plans began to bear fruit.

The first phase - which began in the early 1950s - was piecemeal, the first major construction being the river Rea bank of seating for the general public. This was followed by the building of a second scoreboard with the offer of pounds 100 to the first Warwickshire player to post a hundred on it. Money, though, was a problem, despite rising interest which countered interest rates at the bank.

To offset the crippling costs of expansion, a revolutionary fund- raising body, the Warwickshire Supporters' Association, was set up by an ex-player named Ray Hitchcock. This generated hundreds of thousands of pounds through a football pool and was so successful that other counties were given help. Essex, for instance, received an interest-free loan, which allowed them to buy and develop the ground at Chelmsford and make it their headquarters.

The Pavilion Suite, with dining rooms and ballroom, was completed in 1956 and Warwickshire were clearly on the way to rivalling the more established Test arenas and when in 1967 the William Ansell stand was finished to flank the western side of the ground, it was reckoned to rival Lord's as a smart venue for the big occasion.

Today, Edgbaston finds itself wedged between the green sward of the suburbs and the blunt edge of the inner city. Where high-rise meets low density is never pretty but the ground has a playing surface that offers a quick, flat oufield, though the pitches are invariably slow. Unlike Lord's, it is too open for intimacy, and a full house of 18,100, despite the massed Brummie accents, is not as daunting as the same number on other grounds.

But as the Birmingham Post of 1885 reported, the new ground was 'large enough for all requirements and easy of access to both town and country. It will be their own fault if cricketers of Birmingham and neighbourhood do not achieve for themselves a leading position in the national cricket field'. With a bit of help from the fellow of Trinidad, they are doing just that.

(Photograph omitted)

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