Paul Edwards sees Southport shine on the day county cricket returned to the town
When I have been chatting with Southport cricket fans over the past decade the question they have most frequently asked me is whether there was a chance that Lancashire would soon play a Championship game at Trafalgar Road.
Ten years ago my answer was a firm "no": the club wasn't ready and the facilities were no longer good enough. Five years later the response had changed to "perhaps": improvements were being made and a new, dynamic leadership seemed determined to get the county game back.
By last summer I could say "yes": Lancashire's rotation of the square meant that there would be more games at outgrounds and, while Liverpool seemed set to get most of them, Southport was in with a good shout of at least one of the others.
Last December the news was confirmed, but let no one be in any doubt that first team county cricket would not have returned to the town if Old Trafford officials were not 100% convinced that the club was ready.
Cricket is too big a business these days and the penalties for inadequacy too severe to allow sentiment or good intentions govern Lancashire's decision.
Nonetheless, from the chairman to the bar staff, people at Southport and Birkdale were right to be a little nervous this morning - but they were equally justified to feel a little excited too. Four-day county cricket remains one of the glories of the English summer. It is skilful, intricate and frequently dramatic - and it is back at Southport after a twelve-year absence.
The match itself could scarcely be more attractive. Nottinghamshire are the County Champions and Lancashire have made a determined bid to succeed them this season.
Happily, players and other members from other cricket clubs in the area can be counted on to support the event. S&B may not be their club, but Southport is indubitably their town and the County Match offers an opportunity to gather, chew the fat and watch some cricket.
Spectators turning up at Trafalgar Road this week might also bear in mind that they will be seeing not two teams in action, but three.
The work that needs to be done if a club is to host first-class cricket is colossal. Once he knew S&B had been given a fixture, chairman Tony Elwood assembled a task force which has done him proud.
Its members range from Peter Thomas, who has been a dynamic and hard-working chairman of the festival committee, to Tom Caunce, who has worked tirelessly to ensure that Trafalgar Road looks its best.
Over the past month, walls have been whitewashed, shower areas superbly refurbished, the changing rooms themselves redecorated and the flower beds at the front of the club planted up.
This work has been done by volunteers and it is upon the efforts of such people at thousands of cricket clubs up and down the country that the health of English cricket fundamentally depends.
For just as there would be no England team without the counties, so there would no counties without cricket clubs. Every young cricketer begins somewhere.
And yet, when all the thanks to the volunteers have been handed out - and accepted with more than a little embarrassment - it remains true that without the far-sighted leadership of Ken Standring and Tony Elwood, county cricket would not have come back to Southport this week.
Equally, without the efforts of Peter Bailey in preparing the wicket, the ground itself would not be anything like ready to host the game. Peter's work is all the more admirable given that he has not been in the best of health over the past year.
This week a quiet, self-effacing club groundsman will see his pitch placed under close scrutiny. It would be pleasant if, amid all the celebrations and enjoyment that accompany a county match, someone spared a thought for Peter and thanked him for his work.
Photo (c) Simon Pendrigh
Adapted from an article which first appeared in the Southport Visiter