THE gloves are about to come off!
After an initial 10 rounds of shadow boxing, we are about to get down to the serious stuff as teams roll up their sleeves in preparation for a double weekend of major clashes which will have a significant bearing on just where the inaugural honours are likely to go.
In the blue corner are Esh Winning, the undefeated leaders in the Readers Durham Cricket League, who have won all nine of their previous bouts which have made it to the ring.
But they now face the acid test of their abilities as the fixture planners have presented them with a remarkable double bill in which they take on the two teams most likely to threaten their title push.
On Saturday, they entertain third-placed Castle Eden before, on Sunday, going to Burnmoor, so something just has to give.
The Esh team will not be that well known to supporters in this region, but they were consistently one of the top performers in the Durham County League, winning the very last title, and they will have a full strength line-up to call upon on both days, following the return of Stuart Hall, Michael Bussey and Michael Oughton from holiday in Ibiza.
In the red corner are Burnmoor, the only blemish on their pristine record being a solitary drawn game among their rash of impressive heavyweight knockouts.
Before the clash of champions on Sunday, they face a trip to Whiteleas where their hosts cannot wait to welcome them.
Whiteleas skipper Owen Peterson feels this game, in particular, marks a significant day in the life of his club. He said: “Six years ago, when I joined the club, we were languishing at the bottom of the North East Durham League Second Division and on the brink of folding.
“To welcome a team like Burnmoor to Harton Welfare, a team who are steeped in local cricket history, is testament to how far we’ve come.
“A lot of people on and off the field have worked tirelessly to progress the club and it’s games like Saturday’s that make the hard work worthwhile.”
Burnmoor include James Davidson on Saturday, with veteran Gary Brown returning on Sunday, but they have to reckon without Paul Riddle, whose broken finger has not responded as well as hoped in recent weeks. The decision has been made to rest for a while.
Whiteleas have Scott Baxter returning, and there is a debut at last for Alan Beadle as his transfer from Boldon CA is now fully completed.
The third title challengers are Castle Eden, still undefeated although they have had three draws.
They have one notable absentee for the weekend, with Jude Dinushan away, so Ben Blackwood is handed another opportunity, the youngster having done well in his previous first-team appearances.
Third-placed Castle Eden are well placed in the heavyweight division, just 32 points behind Esh but 48 ahead of fourth-placed Philadelphia, and they end their weekend at home to Ushaw Moor, who are currently outside the top 14 having been on the canvas on four occasions already, although they do have the dangerous Hamad Ul Hassan in their corner now.
As supporting bouts on a star-studded bill, they don’t come much tastier than Philadelphia.
The Bunker Hill men place their unbeaten record on the line against two useful opponents who both pack pretty big punches.
Trips to Kimblesworth are never easy, neither are games against free-scoring Tudhoe, but, if Phili come through the weekend with their record intact, they can look forward to a much easier fixture list in the second half of the summer, and with it a possible challenge for honours.
The return of Matthew Haswell is their only change.
The only other unbeaten record at stake is that of Easington, but they have home advantage for both matches, with Murton the first visitors and Mainsforth following 24 hours later.
Easington they expect to be at full strength on both days, which might also be the case with Murton if Graeme Robson passes a late fitness test. Aiden Vout definitely returns.
Murton round off their double bill with a home game against Boldon CA, who are hovering one place below the top 14. But CA are strengthened by the return to fitness of Brian Conlon, back after overcoming his foot injury, and long-term absentee Carl Purvis, now fully recovered from his dislocated knee.
They play in both weekend games, starting at home to Seaham Park on Saturday.
Silksworth are a little punch drunk. They have hit the deck eight times already, but, despite being at the foot of the table, they are not ready to throw the towel in just yet.
Their two matches could well provide them with the opportunity to record a morale-boosting victory as their Sundaygame sees them entertain Shildon Railway, who are only one place and 10 points above them.
Before that, Silksworth go to Hylton, another team who have yet to win, although their hosts do expect to have a full squad to choose from, other than Kevin Mustard, as Adam Bewick and Liam Foster return.
Silksworth have to reckon without Michael Kelly and David Nield, but John Hayes and Adam Fairley step into the breach.
Umar Akhtar returns to the Dawdon side at Ushaw Moor on Saturday, as do Connor Dickinson, Min Mahill and Thomas Nicholson for Peterlee, who host Bill Quay.
Ryhope’s Chris Lawrence will be out until the end of July with a broken finger, forcing a reshuffle for Saturday’s home clash with Evenwood.
Student Max Scarr is available for Durham City away to free-scoring Tudhoe, while powerful batsman Stephen McCoy is back for Horden in their Saturday game at Mainsforth.