MJK Smith tells Brian Halford how the '61 Test showcased Edgbaston's rise to the status of regular Test venue - and how that rise was powered principally by the punters of the Second City.
When Richie Benaud’s side arrived at Edgbaston in 1961 it was Australia’s first Test visit to Birmingham for more than half a century.
They had been England’s opponents for Edgbaston’s first two Tests, in 1902 and 1909, but the Second City hosted only two more Tests before the 1950s. That irked Warwickshire and after the Second World War the club embarked on a serious bid to make their home a regular Test venue.
But that would require significant ground improvements, which required significant funding – and, long before the days of major sponsorship deals, where would that funding come from?
The club had been very keen to get regular Test matches at Edgbaston. It was great that they achieved it, not just for the club, but because a city of the size and importance of Birmingham should host Test cricket. But it wouldn’t have been possible without the supporters’ association’s football pool.MJK Smith
It came, in huge part, from the people of the West Midlands – via the unstinting efforts of the club’s Supporters Association.
By the time Bears captain Smith skippered England in the Ashes of 1961, Edgbaston had been back on the Test circuit for five years, in four of which it hosted Tests. It would be a regular Test venue from now on.
“In those days there was only one Test series per summer with five Tests, at Lord’s, The Oval, Trent Bridge, Headingley and Old Trafford,” recalls Smith. “So at Warwickshire we put the cat among the pigeons when we joined the list.
“The club had been very keen to get regular Test matches at Edgbaston. It was great that they achieved it, not just for the club, but because a city of the size and importance of Birmingham should host Test cricket. But it wouldn’t have been possible without the supporters’ association’s football pool.”
Warwickshire Supporters Association launched a football pool in 1953. By 1972 they had pumped more than £2 million into county cricket, including more than £1 million into building projects at Edgbaston.
“Worcestershire had started one up and Leicestershire took it up too and did well but then Warwickshire took it to a new level with a city the size of Birmingham,” said Smith. “There were so many sports clubs and factories and offices involved, with all those people paying first a shilling a week then two bob a week.”
The pool ignited spectacularly, not only throughout Birmingham but across the region with thriving memberships in many cities, towns and villages including Coventry, Nuneaton, Warwick, Stratford-upon-Avon, Solihull, Wolverhampton, Lichfield, Bromsgrove and Stourbridge, Burton and Stoneleigh.
“At one stage we had 750,000 people playing,” recalls Smith. “The great thing about it was that it was ongoing incoming. It was not sporadic – you knew that it was going to be there, week after week, and that enabled the club to plan. It enabled the development of the ground and the indoor school with the aim of getting on to the regular Test match rota which is what happened.
“The city council was delighted and I think it helped that the football pool was not run by the cricket club itself. The supporters association ran it brilliantly and the club was, and remains, deeply indebted to all the many people who organised the pool and were collectors. It was tremendously important.
“It was a good thing to take Test cricket around the country from just the established five grounds. We started that and now of course it happens even more with Southampton and Cardiff and Durham.”
By 1961, Edgbaston was looking resplendent. Refurbished and renewed, principally due to the pool funding, its capacity had increased to 32,000, equal to that of Lord’s. It was a proud day for Smith to lead his country against the old enemy on his home county ground – and although rain ruined the match, Saturday’s play attracted a ground record crowd of 25,000.
“Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t very good during that match,” he said, “But it was always special to play for England at Edgbaston and facing Australia was always the big one. I think that has been the case in any era. Even when West Indies were dominating world cricket in the 1980s the biggest rivalry was England v Australia.
“I always enjoyed playing Australia because they had some fine players and you knew they would come at you hard. We had some great duels. I captained England out there in 1965/66 and we were 1-0 up in the series when we went to the fourth Test at Adelaide which, in those days, was the flattest wicket in Australia.
“They controversially left out fast-bowler Graeme McKenzie. But the bloke they replaced him with then pulled out injured so Graeme played after all and took a stack of wickets. We got slaughtered and came away having drawn the series which was a decent effort, but having been 1-0 up, we were very disappointed.”
MJK Smith went on to captain England in half of his 50 Test appearances. A fine batsman and brilliant man-manager, he will forever remain among the best and most highly-respected leaders the national team ever had. He was also, of course, chairman of Warwickshire when the Bears won the treble in 1994 and still keeps closely in touch with the club’s fortunes in 2019, some 63 years after making his Warwickshire bow against Scotland at Edgbaston on July 25, 1956.
He captained the team that day and scored 72. A leader from the very start.