Swann plays down Cardiff pitch furore
England's senior spinner, Graeme Swann, has refused to be drawn into the hype surrounding the state of the wicket at Cardiff, the venue of the first Ashes Test in July, and believes that, far from producing a turning wicket to suit England's requirements, the first priority of the groundstaff at the Swalec Stadium will be to prepare a wicket that lasts for the full five days.
Just seven weeks prior to the Ashes opener, Cardiff's pitch was rated "poor" and its county, Glamorgan, docked two points for next season's Friends Provident Trophy following the spin-dominated contest against Essex earlier this month.
An ECB Pitch Panel comprising Mike Denness and Tony Pigott interviewed the umpires, captains and coaches, and confirmed that the wicket used for the Friends Provident match on May 12 "demonstrated excessive turn and should therefore be rated 'poor'." After bowling first in the match, Essex at one stage reduced Glamorgan to 57 for 7 before a partial recovery to 124 all out, with the Pakistani legspinner Danish Kaneria claiming 4 for 16 in ten overs.
"I'm sure they'll be desperate for the game to go five days down there, so I'm sure there'll be more preparation going into the Test wicket than any other," Swann told Cricinfo. "I wouldn't be surprised if it's not a spinner's wicket, but obviously I'm quite intrigued that spin could play a rather large part of the summer, because as a spin bowler myself I want to play as big a part as possible."
Tim Nielsen, the Australian coach, admitted he had been monitoring the pitch situation in Cardiff and predicts England will play to its strengths and prepare turning pitches this summer. He did not, however, believe the issues surrounding the troubled first Test strip amount to doctoring, and was confident the surface would improve by the time of the first Test.
"It will be interesting to see how it comes up," Nielsen told Cricinfo. "I think it's just a matter of trying to get a new wicket up - you wouldn't have thought they'd want to get themselves docked points in their competition.
"Whenever you go to someone else's country you wait and see what they prepare. Generally, England are renowned for making good, fair cricket wickets, but if they feel two spinners in the way to go for them, then I'm sure they'll have a long think about what kind of wickets they put up. That's fine. We expect hard and bouncy wickets when we go to Perth and Brisbane, so there is no difference."
Nonetheless, the ECB panel's verdict heaps extra pressure onto the Glamorgan administration, who were controversially awarded the opening Test of the Ashes after winning over the ECB with a staging-rights bid of £3 million, backed by the Welsh Assembly.
The refurbished venue has staged just one international match since securing the Ashes Test - England's final ODI against South Africa in September 2008, which was abandoned after three overs because of poor drainage.
Though the outfield has since been relaid, the pressure has scarcely let up on Glamorgan since then. The chief executive, Mike Fatkin, and the head groundsman, Len Smith, both left their posts in the aftermath of the South Africa match, leading the chairman, Paul Russell, to describe the county as "a pretty dysfunctional family."
England's players and pundits have long been unimpressed with the decision to hand Cardiff an Ashes Test ahead of more popular venues such as Old Trafford and Trent Bridge. Earlier this week, Shane Warne joined the chorus by telling Sky Sports that it was a "disgrace" to take the opening fixture away from the game's most traditional venue, Lord's.
Privately, however, the England think-tank will be delighted that the venue for the first Test is shaping up as a turning wicket. Since the retirement of Warne and Stuart MacGill, Australia have struggled to find a Test-class spinner, while England have hit upon two in Swann and Monty Panesar. On this evidence, both men can expect to be named in the first-Test squad.
Glamorgan's director of cricket, Matthew Maynard, indicated he would consider appealing the ECB's decision, and predicted few problems for the Test strip.
"Obviously we haven't played on the Test wicket at all but the ground looks an absolute picture, the pitch looks fantastic and I'm sure (groundsman) Keith (Exton) will get the Ashes strip just right," Maynard told the Guardian. "He's a very experienced groundsman and he knows exactly what he is doing."