Series hangs on Birks' loving hands

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The Independent Online

This is a tough time for Steve Birks. He is preparing a pitch for a crucial Test match, one that could see England take another step on their valiant quest or witness the Ashes lost yet again, as they were on his ground four years ago.

Birks has a hard act to follow at Trent Bridge after the universally acclaimed pitch provided by Peter Marron at Old Trafford, and the gloomy weather forecast might significantly set back his preparation time. Four years ago in the Ashes match, 17 wickets fell on the first day as the ball swung round corners, and match and series were all over on the third.

Two years ago he was roundly and unfairly portrayed as a villain when the pitch deteriorated rapidly and the two second innings totalled 259. This is all conspiring to make him anxious. Oh, and Mrs Kath Birks is expecting the couple's third child any day.

"The due date is 13 September, but the midwife says it could be two weeks early because it's very active at the moment," said Birks. "If it is, that will be slap bang in the middle of the Test, so it'll be a case of running off to hospital, delivering the baby and running back again."

Mrs Birks is content that her husband concentrates on his own midwifery duties - this is the ninth Test strip which he has delivered - though he might be advised to ensure he does not forget their 11th wedding anniversary today.

"This is easily my most important pitch because suddenly for a few days the whole world's on you. It's vital for the county, for England, for the England and Wales Cricket Board. You get jittery, your heart starts beating about 20 more times a minute. Other people have got important jobs, but it's not often that people walk into their office to look at what they do."

The Test strip has been unchanged for eight years, since the new stand was erected at the ground. This splendid construction, Birks agreed, has brought a fundamental change over which no groundsman can have much influence. Birks is convinced, like most others, that it has helped the ball to swing more.

There might not be much rhyme or reason to this, save perhaps for the height and position of the building affecting cloud cover, but there it is. Matthew Hoggard, for one, will be praying that the theory holds up in practice.

Like most (though not all) groundsmen, Birks is a tremendously affable chap who feels enormous strain when this time of year comes round. If it is in their nature to feel agitated at what is about to happen, their work can change the course of events and careers. He admits that Nottinghamshire's new chief executive, Derek Brewer, is out most mornings on the ground calming him down.

The strip is treated pretty much like the rest of the square for most of the year. Except Birks will poke a narrow iron bar in it occasionally to test the moisture level, he will leave it open to the elements when the rest of the square is covered, and he will put coconut matting on it for a few weeks before the match. It has been lightly scarified and dosed with the occasional fertiliser.

Serious work started on Tuesday. Its grass was cut from 12 millimetres, the length on the square, to seven millimetres. It has then been rolled for an hour each morning and afternoon. Then it is cut down to four millimetres. All the time he is balancing the rolling and mowing against the weather.

The average completed first-innings total at Trent Bridge this season has been a shade under 300, though there have been two over 500 and four under 200. Birks was made head groundsman at Derbyshire when he was 24, and came to Nottinghamshire eight years ago.

He appears to recall two Tests particularly. The first was that Ashes match in 2001, when "it just swung and 17 wickets fell, and when Caddick came roaring in there was only me with my fingers crossed saying don't get a wicket".

The second was two years ago against South Africa, when a root break made the pitch poor. The damaged grass was outside his control, but he knew that the pitch would be poor and made sure it was not dangerous.

"There are six pubs where I live, and in one of them I was a national hero while I got stoned in the other five. I got so much abuse and I thought to myself, I'm a groundsman, I don't get millions of pounds, I don't need this."

But he acted to get rid of the problem, trying four different solutions, which all worked. "I'm looking for at least a four-day match. Teatime on the fifth would be ideal."

With England winning and the third Birks baby safely delivered.

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