An Ashes Test at Edgbaston is always a highlight of the Midlands sporting year and on Thursday July 11, 1968, the Birmingham Post gave it a big build-up: "Birmingham's great cricket arena, on which £750,000 has been spent in the last 15 years, reaches its pinnacle today, when it stages the third Test against Australia."
The stage was truly set with the ground’s capacity up to 24,000, rising to 28,000 if the decision was taken to allow spectators to sit on the grass up to the boundary rope. As England, 1-0 down, prepared to try to level the series at a venue where they had never lost, anticipation was in overdrive. To the customary appeal of an Ashes Test, meanwhile, was added a further historic twist – England captain Colin Cowdrey was about to become the first man to play in 100 Test matches.
Unfortunately, by the time the morning paper hit the streets, the pristine grass of Edgbaston was mostly underwater.
Early in the evening of Wednesday July 10 a ferocious storm hit the West Midlands – and it stayed all night. At 10am next morning, Edgbaston was awash and umpires Charlie Elliott and Hugo Yarnold officially called off the opening day’s play.
Geoffrey wasn’t over-impressed with having go out and run for Colin. There was a lot of chuntering.David Brown
Deeply frustrating stuff for everybody concerned. All that Cowdrey could do was be patient and console himself back in the team hotel, perhaps, with a bit of Thursday evening telly. Crossroads at 6.35pm on ATV, looked tempting, before a switch to BBC for Top of the Pops (The Equals ‘Baby Come Back’ was top of the charts) at 7.30pm then back to ATV for International All-star Wrestling at 9pm.
However the England skipper occupied his evening, it clearly left him well-prepared for the next day. The rain stopped, cricket was possible and, after an excruciating opening stand of 80 in 56 overs between Geoffrey Boycott and John Edrich, in went Cowdrey.
Cheered to the crease by the spectators and applauded by the Australian team, the Kent player was unaffected by the emotion of the occasion and compiled a fluent unbeaten 95 by the close. Early on Saturday morning he celebrated his 100th Test with his 21st Test century.
It was an innings of high-class and some fortitude, having been compiled from 58, due to a pulled muscle, with a runner – a rather recalcitrant runner, it transpired. A runner has to be a batsman already dismissed in the innings, of course, so that left only one option: Boycott. “Geoffrey wasn’t over-impressed with having go out and run for Colin,” recalled Warwickshire fast-bowler David Brown who played in the Test. “There was a lot of chuntering.”
Cowdrey’s classy batting, and Boycott’s selfless running, lifted England to 409 and when spinners Ray Illingworth and Derek Underwood shared six wickets to bowl the Aussies out for 222, England scented a victory push if the weather would relent. They also needed to show some urgency themselves, though, and again Boycott and Edrich scored slowly. England’s second innings meandered to 142 for three from 42 overs before a declaration just before the close on the fourth day set Australia 330 to win. They were nine without loss at the close. An intriguing final day beckoned – but the weather forecast was grim.
That forecast lived down to expectations. With Illingworth and Underwood hampered by a wet ball, Australia advanced solidly to 68 for one before rain returned at 12.30pm and washed out the rest of the day. All that remained was the presentation of the Horlicks Awards for best batsman and best bowler from each side in the match. Cowdrey, Underwood, Ian Chappell and Eric Freeman duly pocketed £100 each while the spectators, Warwick Alf among them, headed home to digest the news that building costs were set to keep rising unless urgent action was taken to tackle the ongoing sand shortage.