After ending the 2010 season as the leading wicket-takers for Lancashire's Under 17 team, Leigh's Matty McKiernan (pictured) and Ormskirk's Gavin Griffiths may not have been completely surprised when they were told that they had won places at the Old Trafford Academy.
But such honours are worth treasuring and celebrating all the same: they are the reward both for talent and for years of self-discipline, and they also constitute this pair's first major steps on the hard road that leads to that precious kingdom called professional county cricket.
Also embarking on that journey in 2010-11 is McKiernan's Leigh colleague Joe Davies, who is a precociously talented wicketkeeper and two other players who will be displaying their skills in the Bridging Finance Solutions Liverpool Competition for the first time in 2011: Jack Dewhurst (Rainford CC, ex-Clitheroe) and Tom Bailey (Northern CC, ex-Vernon Carus).
Griffiths's performances for Ormskirk attracted favourable notices from shrewd critics throughout the summer. Fast, straight and laxatively hostile, his bowling earned him a call-up to the England's Elite Player Development XI in August and it was abundantly clear then that he was a strong candidate for an Academy place.
But while Griffiths was capturing some Premier League headlines, McKiernan was impressing team-mates and opponents alike as Leigh won the First Division title by 31 points from Rainford, and the 16-year-old leg-spinner's 48 league wickets (87 in all games) made him a popular choice as the Liverpool Competition's Player of the Season. But even as the smiling recipient collected his award from Jeremy Snape at the league's Annual Dinner, the fact that he had raced back to Goodison Park from a fitness assessment at Old Trafford that same evening was a portent of this week's news.
"Matty's not only a superb young cricketer, he's a nice lad to go with it," said Leigh captain Dave Dove. "He fits in well, he listens, he learns and he always gives 100%. We have high hopes of him and he's showing both the talent and the maturity he will need."
What McKiernan will also find useful as he prepares for long sessions of one-to-one coaching is Premier League cricket and that's now something he can also look forward to as Beech Walk prepares to welcome back the Competition's elite to their fine ground.
"It's the right time for Matty to test himself against top club cricketers," added Dove, who McKiernan credits with giving him ample opportunities to purvey his skills in 2010.
"I've been helped by a lot of people," McKiernan said. "Gary Yates has given me one-to-one coaching, John Stanworth and Steve Titchard sent me on a two-day spin bowling camp at Loughborough where I worked with Peter Such, and recently I've done a lot of fitness training with Winston Sarfield who's the Head Coach at Leigh Miners Welfare RLFC. At the moment I'm at the track anything between once and three times a week."
And once the Christmas decorations are back in the McKiernan loft, specific cricket work will begin again. Matty netted three times a week last winter and it's hard to see the schedule being any lighter in January. He is, to employ the current jargon, a proper cricketer.
The results of all this can be seen on warm Saturday afternoons at Beech Walk where McKiernan deploys his array of deliveries. "Well, I've got a leg-spinner and a googly and I got a lot of wickets last year with my slider," he explains. "But obviously it's key to change pace, flight and direction........."
Suddenly in the background - we are chatting on the phone - there is a stern command from Matty's dad, Tim, an old pro if ever there was one. "Stop telling him all your secrets! " he orders, and so we move on to identifying Matty's most difficult opponent who, it turns out, is Formby's Mark Baker. "He's brilliant when it comes to playing spin and he's very controlled at hitting over the top," is the McKiernan assessment.
Finally, of course, there's Brownie and Mull. For whenever McKiernan needs to know what it is like to be a professional county cricketer, he need only ask his two colleagues in the Leigh side, both of whom play for the club whenever their commitments at Lancashire and Nottinghamshire permit.
"Having Brownie in the team for most of last season made a huge impact," said McKiernan. "You get the atmosphere of professional cricket from him. He's switched on in the field and you never think he's going to get out. Training with him is hard because he's one of the fittest players at Old Trafford but you push yourself to keep up."
Which is pretty much where the call ended. I offered my thanks for his time and wished him all the best. Five minutes later he rang me back. He thought I'd like to know that he had this text from John Stanworth. It was about the Lancashire Academy............
Reproduced by kind permission of the Bridging Finance Solutions Liverpool Competition Official Website.