On March 31, 1902, Aston Villa's home season ended with a 2-2 draw against Manchester City. It had been a forgettable season for Villa, brightened only by a league double over arch-rivals Small Heath, and for the final home game only 16,000 spectators were scattered around the stands.
At the final whistle, goals from Jasper McLuckie and George Johnson having earned Villa a point, the fans filtered away and most of those stands clocked off for the summer – but not all of them. For several were destined for a role in one of the most important days in Birmingham’s sporting history, two months later. Unhitched from Villa Park, they were loaded onto horse-drawn wagons and their thousands of seats were conveyed across the city to Edgbaston where on May 29, the ground was to stage its inaugural Test match – an Ashes tussle with Australia.
Warwickshire’s hosting of a Test just eight years after achieving first-class status was a giant achievement and the club and the city was in a state of high excitement for months beforehand. For the club, and principally secretary Rowland Ryder, the honour meant some serious and very challenging work. In the year up to the Test, the general committee met 36 times. To Ryder – a native of Yorkshire but now very much ‘Mr Warwickshire’ – fell the bulk of the organisation.
It took just a matter of hours as a Test venue for Edgbaston to show its enduring capacity to inspire England. In reply to 376 for nine, the Aussies were bowled out for 36.Brian Halford
He arranged for the transportation of those stands from Villa Park. He contacted local railway companies to arrange cheap fares from all towns in a 60-mile radius. He oversaw the accommodation of 90 pressmen in the ground and the hiring of 200 catering staff, 60 extra gateman and 60 policeman. He also did his best to ensure the contentment of the Australian team, both in terms of practice facilities at Edgbaston and comfort at The Grand Hotel.
All this Ryder took on without the aid of a telephone, a typewriter or a precedent. It was, perhaps, the most impressive feat of logistics by any man in the history of sport.
One element was, however, beyond the compass of even the resourceful Ryder – the weather. England christened Edgbaston with some superb cricket but the match was plagued by rain which ruined their victory bid and also severely damaged Warwickshire’s finances. The prestigious occasion left the club nursing a loss of more than £2,000 (around £250,000 in today’s money).
It took just a matter of hours as a Test venue for Edgbaston to show its enduring capacity to inspire England. In reply to 376 for nine, the Aussies, holders of the Ashes and with one of their strongest ever sides in the field, were bowled out for 36.
They reached eight without loss before, in surely the most effective change-of-ends ever, Wilf Rhodes and George Hirst switched to Pavilion and City Ends respectively. Little more an hour later, Rhodes had seven for 17 and Hirst three for 15 and the Aussies were following on.
The tourists were eight without loss at the close, so needed to bat all through the last day of the three-day match to salvage a draw. To their delight, early in the evening, heavy rain set in. The downpour continued all night so that at 9am the Edgbaston field was underwater. Not an inch of turf was visible.
Remarkably, that was not the end of the story. The sun came out at 2pm and a large crowd began to assemble at the gates, determined to be part of the historic occasion even if the match was doomed to a draw. Ryder ordered the gates to be opened at 4.30pm and play resumed at 5.15pm, Australia advancing to 46 for two before the game was drawn.
Edgbaston had arrived as a Test venue, but it was a costly venture. “The main result of our promotion to Test match rank,” observed Ryder, “was that at the end of the season we had to appeal to the public to repair our finances.”
The public responded magnificently to shore up their beloved cricket club. Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion staged benefit matches, the Empire and Gaiety Theatres put on special events and fundraising events in the city’s 1,500 pubs, as well as offices and factories across the region, chipped in to raised £3,700 (around £430,000 today). Thanks to the passion of the people around it, Warwickshire County Cricket Club – and the future of Test cricket at Edgbaston – was saved.