THE battle for the upper ground in the Readers Durham Cricket League table intensifies tomorrow with fourth-placed Easington travelling to second-top Esh Winning, in-form Horden due at third-placed Castle Eden, and new leaders Burnmoor facing up to a stubborn Marsden side who have lost just once so far.
Esh Winning’s air of invincibility has faded slightly in recent weeks, with last week’s nerve-jangling one-wicket defeat to Horden being their second in the last month.
Having fallen 20 points behind Burnmoor, they cannot afford too many more slip-ups.
Easington will travel with confidence, their only defeat of the summer coming in a match when talismanic professional Kamran Mansoor was missing.
While Mansoor plays in this one, they do have one key absentee in the shape of Ryan Higgins, who is attending the Ashes Test. Higgins has enjoyed a fine season so far, with a century included among his 300 league runs. Brian Fenwick senior is expected to feature in his absence.
Castle Eden go into their home game against Horden with an unchanged team – unchanged that is in everything except status given the recent news that secretary Leo Taylor, who has been involved with the club since 1965, has been awarded a BEM for services to the community.
The best investiture Leo could receive would be 30 points to keep his side within touching distance of the top, but Horden are enjoying a 10-game unbeaten run which culminated with the thrilling win over Esh.
They are almost at full strength, with only keeper Paul Jenkins missing. This creates a little bit of a dilemma as second-string keeper Cameron Miller is a fitness doubt, so, if he doesn’t make it, John Minnis will pick up the gloves.
Burnmoor are living up to their pre-season billing as one of the title favourites, but skipper Alec Linsley is not getting too carried away just yet.
He told the Echo: ‘‘It’s nice to get to the top of the table and with nine games to go we obviously want to stay there!
“But we can’t take anything for granted. Our next two games look very significant, with Marsden this week and Horden, a bit of a bogey team for us in recent years, the week after.
“So, if we can get a couple of good results, we can then be in good shape for the run-in.”
Marsden undoubtedly pose a threat as a record of one defeat in 16 matches suggests.
They are a team of real scrappers, and even when their backs are to the wall they manage to find the strength of character to avoid defeat so Burnmoor’s preference for batting first and then trying to winkle out the opposition will no doubt test their penetrative powers if they choose to go down that route again.
Burnmoor have to reckon without Karl Bellerby, who has proved a useful recent addition to their squad, as well as Mark Robson, but veteran Gary Brown will play.
Marsden’s first-choice keeper, Connor Elliott, will not go behind the sticks again this season as he attempts to solve his lingering knee problem, although he will play as a batsman. Stuart Zatorski takes over the gloves on a permanent basis.
Only three unbeaten records remain in the league, and alongside Burnmoor and Castle Eden in that prestigious club are Philadelphia, although five successive draws have taken the steam out of a prospective title challenge and left them 103 points adrift of the leaders.
Phili will start tomorrow’s home game against Silksworth as clear favourites to break the draw sequence as their opponents have faced a season-long struggle which sees them propping up the rest without a single win to their name.
But the hosts have to come to terms with the fact that Adam Maguire will miss the rest of the season after he fractured his thumb in four places when falling awkwardly on his hand in the last game at Crook. Such was the damage, he underwent an operation this week.
Four wins in their last five matches have lifted Hylton into a crucial top 14 slot, and they sit a comfortable 26 points above the “cut” for next season’s top flight.
The Wearsiders take their excellent current form to Ryhope on Saturday, with their hosts not so buoyant after losing eight of their last nine.
Hylton have to reckon without Andrew Kibble and Adam Bewick, but other than that skipper Alan Mustard, who has done an excellent job in moulding a winning team, still has 14 first-team squad members to choose from.
Ryhope show two changes, with Micky Thorpe returning from suspension but Luke Anderson now banned for one game, and Jack Tomlin replacing Greg Dixon.
Durham City expect to have Subhan Christudas and Tom O’Neill available for their home game against a rejuvenated Seaham Park.
It is wonderful what a derby win can do for confidence and last week’s victory over Dawdon has seen Park’s spirits soar, with Gaurav Jathar’s outstanding form also a cause for celebration. The Indian has around 700 league runs and 37 wickets to date, and his last four innings have featured scores of 130, 78no, 110 and 88no.
Dawdon are unchanged for their home encounter with a Murton team who have lost their last six matches, while Whiteleas recall Ryan Hale in place of the footballing Scott Oliver when they entertain in-form Boldon CA.