Hard, flat and true
"If England win the ICC Champions Trophy - and they really could; they're that good - I'd like to think the groundstaff around the country will have played a small part in their success."
That's the view of Gary Barwell, the head groundsman at Edgbaston, the scene of the tournament's final in 2013 and one of the semi-finals this time. He feels that over recent years the List A surfaces in England have become "the best in the world". Especially once you take into context the volume of cricket required of surfaces in England and the challenging weather conditions in which they are prepared.
While you might expect Barwell to fight the corner of his colleagues, he may have a point. Certainly there is evidence to suggest that England's limited-overs resurgence has been at least partially enabled by the improved surfaces on which they are playing.
Take what now appears to have been the watershed 2015 series against New Zealand. Within a few days in June, England established their first 400-plus ODI score, their highest ODI chase and the highest match aggregate of an ODI in which they had been involved. Whether it was Trent Bridge, The Oval or Edgbaston, England were given the surfaces that suited their new-found aggressive approach with the bat.
Nor was it a one-off. They broke one of the records set that series - their highest ODI total, 408 for 9 at Edgbaston - in August 2016 when they thrashed 444 for 3 against Pakistan at Trent Bridge. It is, at the time of writing, the highest ODI score ever made, though there seems a decent chance that by the end of the tournament it may have been surpassed.
It's not just England, either. Opposition teams are also scoring heavily in England and Wales, meaning that since the 2015 World Cup, nowhere in the world has seen ODIs with such a high run rate (an average 6.15 runs per over). That compares to the two years up to the World Cup, which saw ODIs in England (and Wales) rank only sixth in the global table of highest average run rates (at 5.21 runs per over). India led the way at the time with an average run rate of 6.05 runs per over. While run rates have increased pretty much everywhere, nowhere have they risen as dramatically as in England. There have been 19 totals of 300 or more in just 22 matches since the World Cup (up to the start of the series against South Africa); by comparison, there had been only five such totals in England (and Wales) in 43 ODIs up to the last Champions Trophy in 2013.
It was a change mirrored in domestic cricket. On June 6, 2016, Nottinghamshire and Northamptonshire plundered 870 runs in a List A game at Trent Bridge; only two fewer than the record for the format established in Johannesburg by Australia and South Africa a decade earlier. Two days later, Nottinghamshire shared another 794 runs with Warwickshire. Pitch marks - the marks given by umpires at the end of each match - have improved to such an extent that Trent Bridge averaged 5.96 last year. Six is rated very good (the highest mark), five is good and four is above average. "I can foresee a day when a groundsman getting a mark of 5.9 is rated only 18th in the country," Barwell says. "We're all getting better and there is more expectation of what we can provide."
This year the domestic 50-over competition has been played earlier in the season. While the aim was largely to create something of a window for the T20 tournament, it has also allowed the competition to be played on fresher surfaces. So while last year's winners, Warwickshire, played the quarter-final, semi-final and final on used surfaces - a factor that may well have helped a side that included the spin of Jeetan Patel and the accumulative Jonathan Trott - this year's surfaces have tended to offer a little more pace and a little less assistance to spinners. The result? Domestic batsmen in England are increasingly becoming accustomed to surfaces that enable them to hit through the ball. It's not just the England side that has changed; it's whole of English cricket.
Why? Well, the ECB has targeted success at the 2019 World Cup as crucial for the growth of the game. So, while 50-over cricket was once the poor relation to the other formats - T20 was seen as more glamorous (and lucrative) and first-class cricket more noble - it has now been given far greater priority.
It's not just the pitches, of course. It's no secret that after their humiliation at the 2015 World Cup, there was a realisation that the mindset of the England side had to change. So out went the safety-first, accumulative style and in came younger players, developed in the age of T20 and better prepared to adopt the aggressive approach of the age. It was a change that most other international sides had made years previously and one that continues to develop in all formats of the game.
That mindset change, combined with better (and often bigger) bats, improved strength and conditioning, better drainage which has resulted in pitches retaining less moisture, smaller boundary sizes and the adoption of two new Kookaburra balls in ODI and English domestic cricket - they hardly swing and tend not to get too soft later in the innings - has created a situation where run-rates are increasing fast. It's a global trend, but nowhere is it more pronounced.
But for that approach to work, you need surfaces to suit. You need to allow the likes of Jason Roy and Alex Hales pitches where they won't be punished for poking at deliveries that could leave them; where you don't need the likes of Alastair Cook and Trott to negate the moving ball and set a platform.
Barwell expects his Champions Trophy pitches to be similar to those seen at Edgbaston in this year's domestic 50-over competition: high scoring with little seam or spin and minimal swing. As he puts it: "We don't get the interference or instruction people seem to think, but one-day pitches in England right now are the best in the world. Well, if you're a batsman."
It is intriguing to hear Barwell say he anticipates little spin. The 2013 Champions Trophy final was notable for the amount of turn India gained in the second innings. While Barwell disputes the suggestion the surface was simply too dry - "It only turned in the second innings after the surface became damp; we were trying to get that game played in wet conditions as there was no reserve day" - he does admit he has learned lessons from the experience.
"I was in my second year of the job here," he explains. "And yes, it was a big event for me.
"Early on in the tournament - in one of the warm-up games - an umpire warned me that I'd watered one of the neighbouring pitches too much and that, for an ODI, they would have thought of delaying or even abandoning play.
"That really surprised me and the thought of having 24,000 people here and disappointed because I'd screwed up was at the back of my mind. So I did everything by the book. I was cautious with my watering and yes, by the time we got to the final, the pitch was dry.
"Would I do the same thing again? No. I'd do what I know has to be done to create good pitches and I wouldn't listen to anyone who told me to do anything differently."
There are other challenges for these groundsmen. With broadcasters insisting on stadiums using pitches in the middle of the square for all televised games - and there could be around 20 days of televised cricket from Edgbaston this year - the amount of use on those few strips right in the middle is exhaustive.
As a result, they have increased the number of international-quality surfaces at Edgbaston. There are now nine pitches that can accommodate international, televised games, which gives Barwell the luxury of watering surfaces required for later in the tournament even the day before major matches. While there will be some reuse of pitches, Barwell is confident the standard will remain consistently high.
"And they're the same everywhere," he says. "All 18 groundsmen around the county circuit are as good as one another and I think, in terms of pitches, you could play these games at any ground, from Chester-le-Street to Hove, and get great wickets. We share knowledge and experience and, on a basic level, we have good equipment.
"So, yes. We're ready. And yes, I think you're going to see some pretty similar scores to the domestic 50-over matches earlier in the season. Only once did a team fail to score 300 in the first innings and even then, it was only by 19. It's a really exciting England side and I think we've given them the surfaces to show the world how good they are."
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo