ANOTHER intense period of cricket beckons for a number of clubs as the Co-operative Funeralcare T20 group stages come to a close tomorrow evening, and the Banks Salver quarter-finals are staged on Sunday, writes Chris West.
Sandwiched in between, of course, is a further round of league matches which will mark the exact halfway point of the season.
At the moment, the championship race is looking distinctly like a two-horsed affair as South Northumberland and Hetton Lyons have opened up a gap between themselves and the chasing pack.
But Saturday could be a defining moment in that particular race as the top four teams in the table clash head on, with South North entertaining local rivals Benwell Hill, who are fourth, and Lyons playing host to the reigning champions, third-placed Stockton – a recipe for the potential dropping of points if ever there was one.
Lyons need to shake off the disappointment of a heavy National Club Cup defeat at the hands of York last Sunday as all three matches they face in the next three days carry significance.
They begin with their final T20 group match tomorrow night when they travel to Willington, and the equation in that one is simple – win and they go through, lose and they go out.
On Sunday, the Hetton side face a trip to Washington in the last eight of the Salver, but it’s the league game against Stockton which will be uppermost in their minds as victory would put them way ahead of the title holders and set them up nicely for the second half run-in.
Stockton have one or two selection issues, with influential skipper Kevin Ward set to sit this one out. Richard Waite will captain in his absence and the Teessiders are hopeful that Durham bowler Jamie Harrison will play his first game of the season for them.
Shaun Birbeck will play for the Lyons this week, although Robbie Talbot is working, and the situation with Ryan Pringle will once again depend on Durham, who have NatWest T20 Blast games tomorrow and on Sunday.
Sunderland’s main concern is to arrest the slide in form that has seen them lose three games on the trot, picking up just five points in the process.
With Gateshead Fell already looking nailed on for relegation, barring a miraculous uplift in form, there should be no undue worries for the Ashbrooke men on that score, but, with no T20 commitments after tomorrow night’s game at Benwell Hill, and their involvement in the Salver ended a few weeks ago, the home league game against Tynemouth becomes important in terms of providing an opportunity to stop the rot and boost confidence.
The Wearsiders have a settled team for this one, although again awaiting the availability news on Durham bowler Usman Arshad, but Tynemouth show two changes, with Finn Lonnberg and Graeme Hallam returning in place of Ryan Macciocchi and the unavailable Marcus Turner.
Chester-le-Street are just getting used to the fact that their grip on the T20 competition, which they have won for the last three years, has finally been loosened, and their home game tomorrow night against South Hetton is now a dead rubber.
In the league, the Cestrians are a massive 72 points behind the leaders, but they may be able to make inroads into that on Saturday as they will be looking for maximum points when they make the short trip to Eastwood Gardens to take on rock-bottom Gateshead Fell, although their hosts have Tom Pinkney, Andy Porter and Richie Smith all set to return.
On Sunday, Chester travel to Tynemouth for a Banks Salver game which has suddenly taken on more importance.
Top-flight newcomers Whitburn are still firing on two cup fronts.
Victory at South Shields tomorrow will ensure their passage into the quarter-finals of the T20, while they have home advantage against Blaydon in the Salver on Sunday. Their league game is also on home soil against Newcastle, and on-song Durham bowler Paul Coughlin is expected to be available this week.