This year’s Wisden Almanack is thinner than most - but it still contained a welcome surprise for one Love Lane Liverpool Competition skipper.

To replace the regular School Cricketer of the Year feature, which has run since 2008, Wisden instead retrospectively selected a winner for every year dating back to 1900.

Back in 2004, current Northern captain James Cole scored 959 runs, including five centuries, at an average of 119.87 for Merchant Taylors’ School in Crosby.

It was enough to propel him to the top of that year’s averages, and to make him the Wisden selectors’ pick - ending two years of dominance by one Alastair Cook.

“In my first innings of that season, I got about 140 - I think I was dropped about six times,” Cole told the ECHO. “I got about three or four centuries in the first four or five games, and went on from there.

“It was great times, playing with your mates against other competitive schools from around the country.”

One of Cole’s team-mates was Southport & Birkdale’s ex-skipper Chris Firth, who took 48 wickets at 13.81 to help the school record nine wins out of their 14 games.

But many of the others fell by the wayside, according to Cole, who added: “A lot of them gave up playing when they went away to university. But you recognise people you’ve played against over the years, and some of them are still club cricketers - and some have gone on to higher things.”

As well as Cook - whom Cole remembers playing against as a schoolboy - the Wisden list includes names such as Michael Atherton, Jos Buttler and James Taylor, along with seven others who went on to captain England across all formats.

“It’s nice to see some of those names next to yours,” Cole said.

Looking ahead to the 2021 Competition season, Cole is hoping the Northern squad he last year described as “the best we’ve ever had” can compete for honours again.

“Our ambition every year is to try and win the league,” Cole said ahead of his side’s opening day trip to near rivals Formby.

“We’re hopeful that the players we’ve got are going to step up.

“Everyone wants to win as much as they can, and we’ve got some exciting young players so it’ll be interesting to see how they go about their cricket this year with a bit more responsibility.”

One big miss will be Ormskirk-bound Taylor Cornall, who excelled as Northern won a tough group in last year’s Love Lane Leagues - and who this week scored a century for Lancashire’s 2nd XI.

And it’s not been a busy winter of recruitment for the 2018 champions, as they look to build on 2019’s third place finish.

But Cole speaks highly of Lancashire Academy all-rounder Alec McLoughlin, signed from Hightown St Mary’s ahead of last summer.

“We’ve got quite a lot of batting and bowling,” added the wicketkeeper-captain. “So we didn’t feel the need to recruit.

“We want to give the youngsters a go - we’re really ready for the season, and we should be competitive on all fronts.”

Cole clearly brings a positive attitude to the role. No winter nets because of lockdown? Players prefer to be outside anyway, he says.

Similarly, he reckons the benefits of a settled squad could give the Crosby side an advantage over some of their busier rivals.

He said: “We’re going to be quite settled with our team. A lot of teams have professional cricketers on full-time contracts, or lads on scholarships, so it’ll be interesting to see what their availability is moving forward.

“Particularly the Lancashire side will dictate how certain teams will do.”

Cole, whose day job is matching players from around the world with clubs around the country, says Northern were thinking of breaking with club tradition this year and signing an overseas star.

“In January, we were going to look into bringing a young Australian lad over,” he said. “But with the practicalities of getting him into the country, and quarantined … at the time, it looked like the season was going to be affected, so we decided against it and to push on with the young lads.”

And as Cole knows extremely well, sometimes a young cricketer can have a very special year.