NE Premier League: First Division title race still wide open, with four contenders

Kamran Shah bats for leaders Eppleton in last week's dramatic win at Sunderland
Kamran Shah bats for leaders Eppleton in last week's dramatic win at Sunderland
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With the top four sides in Division One now separated by just 19 points, and with only six games left to play, an exciting run-in is promised with each side believing they have a great chance of taking the championship.

Interestingly, the desire to win the title is very evident in all four clubs, but not all are eagerly looking forward to the promotion that would follow, with a couple of the front-runners indicating that the step up to all day cricket would mean they would lose three or four players because of other commitments.

That is a debate that has run for much of this season, and previous seasons as well, but it does not diminish the desire for silverware.

Two of the four clash head on this weekend, with surprise package Willington entertaining Burnmoor, the home team in a fine run of form having gone the last nine games unbeaten.

But the Moor are able to call on the experience of many such run-ins in recent times, and, with the scent of success in their nostrils once more, “people are now playing with purpose” was the phrase used by Ian Linsley, the Burnmoor secretary, earlier this week.

With three successive championship-winning seasons behind them, their initial tentative steps into the unknown of Premier League cricket has now blossomed into belief they can triumph again.

Unusually for Burnmoor,. they have lost four times, but they are just 12 points behind leaders Eppleton and have all their leading rivals to play in the closing weeks, starting with the trip to Willington.

They take a full strength side to Manor Road, where their hosts make one change, with wicketkeeper Andy Dickinson replaced by Elliott Foster.

Eppleton played their “get out of jail free” card last week at Ashbrooke, and it remains to be seen whether they have anything left up their sleeves in the last six matches, but they should start as heavy favourites to win their home game against struggling Sacriston this weekend.

The visitors are at optimum strength for this one, with Phil Peel back in the side.

With Kyle Davis still away, table-toppers Eppleton stick with the same 11 who pulled off that dramatic last over, one-run win miracle against Sunderland.

It looks likely that the fourth team in the title chasing quartet, Washington, will have to cope without the services of influential skipper Ash Thorpe for the run-in.

The captain has a knee injury that will keep him out indefinitely – possibly for the rest of the campaign.

Their challenge continues with a home game against Seaham Harbour, who will have both Jack Lacey and Jeff Laws back.

Washington will at least have a quality replacement for Thorpe, with James Thompson up for the weekend from Lord’s where he is on the MCC groundstaff.

The brief stay of Mosharraf Hossain at Boldon is over.

The Bangladeshi international has returned home for the rest of the summer after playing just eight league games for the club.

The security of Boldon’s mid-table ranking, and the fact they are not in the title race, means he will not be replaced, with his place in the side going to Oliver Sampson-Barnes.

In the only other change for Saturday’s home game against Brandon, Joseph Forster replaces James Groombridge, while Anthony Brown keeps his place after last week’s dramatic seasonal first-team debut when he scored an unbeaten 40 and then took seven wickets.

In the day’s other games, Sunderland will be missing skipper Greg Applegarth for their game at Felling, so Arsalan Rahim’s return is timely, and another captain away for the weekend is South Hetton’s Tony Murphy, with his place going to Mark Gray for the home game against Tudhoe.