Whitburn’s worst fears were realised on Saturday when they crashed to a fifth successive defeat, a run of form which has thrust them into the midst of the relegation dogfight.
What made matters worse was the fact that the Villagers’ latest loss came at the hands of Gateshead Fell, thereby handing the bottom club a dramatic lifeline heading into the final five matches of the season.
And it could have been so different in a game eventually lost by the convincing margin of 85 runs as Whitburn were twice in a position to go for a win that would have all but guaranteed their safety.
Their first position of strength came when they reduced the home side to 112-6, before taking their foot of the throat and allowing Fell to scramble up to 205 all out after a late half-century from David Daley.
With 69 overs to get the runs in, Whitburn decided on the newly fashionable aggressive approach to the chase, and this looked like paying rich dividends as they rattled along to 91-1 on the back of a 37-ball 50 from skipper Andy Turns.
But suddenly the aerial route to success didn’t seem so attractive as the innings was fatally holed when five wickets evaporated for the addition of just three runs – all five batsmen caught.
Now rightly cock-a-hoop, Fell did not let the opportunity pass, whipping out the final four batters to leave a stunned Whitburn all out for 120 in only 25.1 overs. Jonny Roseby (4-15) and Barry McCarthy (5-65) were filled their boots with the Whitburn lemmings.
It’s now getting a bit crowded at the foot of the table. With Tynemouth losing at Jesmond, and Blaydon only managing a draw at Benwell Hill, just 22 points now cover the bottom quartet, with any one of the four now in danger of being sucked through the relegation trapdoor, and some intriguing head-to-heads lined up over the final few weeks of the season.
Up at the summit, Chester-le-Street managed to keep tabs on South North with both picking up maximum points from their respective games.
The Cestrians looked on course for a mammoth total before hosts Stockton managed to rein them in. Simon Birtwisle (78 from 91 balls) and Andrew Smith (54 from 61 balls) put Chester firmly in command on 139-1, but, with Haidar Shafiq and Jaspreet Singh sharing eight wickets in a spin-dominated attack, the visitors had to be content with 240-9 in 51.4 overs.
The Teessiders looked to be in with a shout for long periods of the second innings, particularly at 102-1 and 157-3, but the Chester attack stuck to their guns. With Birtwisle adding three wickets to his earlier runs, the final four home wickets fell for 23 and the last two for none, leaving the Cestrians 24-run winners.
South North maintained their vice-like grip on the leadership with a 81-run success against Hetton Lyons, skipper John Graham leading from the front with a run-a-ball 89 as the Bulls made 253-8 from 58 overs, despite Ben Whitehead taking 3-65. Stephen Humble and Dave Rutherford shared six wickets to leave the Lyons licking their wounds on 172 all out. Allan Worthy (39), Jack McBeth (32) and David Lowther (27) top-scored.
South Shields shared a draw with the in-form Durham Academy at the Emirates ICG, Scott Steel’s unbeaten 61 being the anchor in the hosts’ 60-over total of 254-7, and Tim David’s 116-ball 83 lighting up the Shields response of 202-6 in a similar number.