Rouse feels the surface tension

Players are not the only ones on edge. Jon Culley finds Edgbaston is as well
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The Independent Online

Mounting a successful security operation will be only one of the worries facing the ground authorities at Edgbaston when the Ashes begin on Thursday. Indeed, the crowd disorder that disrupted the NatWest Series match there has only added to the anxieties already facing Warwickshire's chief executive, Dennis Amiss, and his team.

A series of abbreviated Test matches at Edgbaston have brought stinging criticism of the county's ability to produce pitches fit for five-day cricket and a threat from the England and Wales Cricket Board that Edgbaston's status will be in doubt if more games fail to go the distance.

Early finishes to Test matches cost the ECB up to £1mlast season, with most of the blame attaching to the two-day Test at Headingley and the three-day affair at Edgbaston. England were bowled out for 179 and 125 as the West Indies won by an innings last season, resulting in a deserted ground on Sunday and Monday for the second year running after Andy Caddick had destroyed New Zealand in 1999.

Last year's Test wicket was not quite so alarming as in 1995, when England were bowled out for 89 by Court-ney Walsh and Ian Bishop, but still attracted a stark warning from the ECB's pitch consultant, Chris Wood, who said that both Headingley and Edgbaston would be under scrutiny. "The ultimate sanction would be the withdrawal of Test matches," he said.

Steve Rouse, the Edgbaston groundsman, has therefore found himself under intense pressure in the build-up to this year's Test. "We have had problems in the last few years because there has been bad cracking on the wickets," Amiss said. "You expect cracking to a certain degree but ours have been getting slightly bigger. This time we have changed the way in which we prepare the square, particularly with regard to the autumn and spring work, and this has resulted in a better and more even growth.

"We were not getting the root growth we would have liked but hopefully we have improved that, and although we had a very wet winter the weather recently has been relatively dry and the wickets have played pretty well. Conditions have been good over the last few days and the forecast until Thursday suggests there should not be any problems in the immediate run-up to the Test, so we are keeping our fingers crossed that everything goes well."

However,Nasser Hussain will still face a tough choice should he call correctly on Thursday morning. In eight Tests at Edgbaston since 1991, five captains have opted to bat first, and all have lost.

Whatever happens on the pitch, the Edgbaston staff will be prepared for trouble off it following the invasion of the field that halted the day-night match against Pakistan, although the effects of excess alcohol rather than patriotic fervour will be of greater concern this time. Amiss said: "We want to get the balance right so that people can enjoy a really good atmosphere, but there have been ejections and arrests in the past and regulations will be strictly enforced."