Edgbaston curator predicts bowlers' graveyard
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Steve Rouse, the Edgbaston groundsman, believes England should resist the temptation to call in Steve Harmison for the third Test on a wicket he predicts will be flat and sluggish. Rouse also forecast a torrid outing for the likes of Andrew Flintoff, with rain making for a heavy playing surface that will make "bowling 25 overs feel like 35 overs".
Harmison combined with fellow England squad member Graham Onions to force the only first-class result at Edgbaston this year; a ten-wicket win for Durham. The England pacemen claimed 16 of the 20 Warwickshire wickets to fall, and Harmison has continued his rich vein of form since with three further five-wicket hauls this season.
Rouse, though, insists Harmison's bang-it-in approach would not be suited to an Edgbaston pitch softened by recent rain. Bowlers who maintain a fuller length, he suggested, will stand a greater chance of success from Thursday.
"Steve is a back of a length bowler," Rouse told Cricinfo's Switch Hit podcast. "If you bang it in on that, it will dent the surface and come off slowly, and good players - quality Test players - have always got time to play. I don't think Steve pitches it up enough. I think it's a kiss-the-surface wicket.
"The outfield will be heavy. You'll get a wet ball. Nobody likes bowling with a wet ball because the seam goes soft and it doesn't swing, and it will be bloody hard work on the bowlers' legs out there as well because it is heavy. If you bowl 25 overs a day it will feel like bowling 35 overs a day, that's how heavy it is."
Rouse made headlines last week when he described the rain-soaked surface as "jelly", but believes the wicket has improved dramatically in recent days. Michael Clarke, the Australian vice-captain, noted with surprise on Tuesday that the Test strip was "quite dry", while Ian Bell predicted another "good batting wicket".
But their forecasts could be overshadowed by those from The Met office, which is predicting plenty of rain for the West Midlands over the coming days.
"I think it will be pretty slow and low," he said. "We haven't had any really hot weather to dry it out to a depth. The top three quarter inches is firm, I wouldn't say it's hard, but firmer than it was three days ago. If we could have had another three days' sunshine and wind it probably would have had a bit of pace in it.
"I said the pitch (was like jelly), not the wicket. The pitch meaning the outfield, and that is still very, very wet indeed. You only have to look where they've been training this morning .. and they've cut it to shreds. We've actually asked England if they would train and play on the same side the Aussies did so we don't have to cut it in two different places and save the fuel bill."
Rouse found himself at the centre of attention four years ago when Ricky Ponting infamously defied modern history and sent England in to bat on an Edgbaston wicket that looked particularly green after a period of inclement weather, which included a tornado. Rarely has a pitch's hue and a captain's decision provoked such public curiosity and debate, but as England stormed to 407 on the first day, all eyes turned to Ponting and the playing surface he had apparently misjudged.
Or had he? In a surprising development, Rouse admitted that he had agreed with Ponting's call to bowl first; a decision that was lambasted by many within the media, and allegedly led to a dressing room disagreement between the Australian captain and his senior bowler, Shane Warne. Rouse's assessment, however, will provide little comfort for Ponting, who presided over a two-run loss at Edgbaston and an eventual 2-1 series defeat in 2005.
"I still think Ponting was probably in the right to bowl first," he said. "There was a lot of moisture underneath it. The fact that they didn't bowl well, nobody says anything about that.
"Knowing what I know what was underneath and being a bowler, I would have bowled first anyway. This has got a fair bit of moisture under here at the moment. (ECB pitch consultant) Chris Woods has just been to stick the old pin in the top, and he said it's incredible how it's changed from last Tuesday, where his probe went in nine or ten inches and now he had to really press through the top. That's how much it's dried."
The Edgbaston pitch has played host to 16 draws from its last 20 first-class matches, and is regarded among the flattest in the country. Risking a showdown with Warwickshire's director of cricket, Ashley Giles, Rouse said he had been unsuccessful in his attempts to convince the county to leave more grass on the strip which, he feels, would bring bowlers back into the contest.
"I'm always onto Ash about leaving more and more grass on," he said. "I get sick to death of watching boring cricket. I can see no point in getting 650, that's two-and-a-half days gone, then the next side goes in because they want their batting points. They go and get 400, declare at tea time on the last day and go home. To me, that's four days totally wasted. If I could leave a lot, lot more grass on so there's more pace and more carry you'd encourage the quick bowlers, plus it helps people play their shots more. But they're frightened to lose. If you're frightened to take a gamble, you're not going to win anything. Never."
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo