The penultimate weekend of Premier Division cricket saw South North crowned champions for the 10th time in 13 seasons and Gateshead Fell take another huge step towards safety.
It was supposed to be a simple dotting of the i’s and crossing of the t’s at Stockton for the Bulls, and that’s exactly as it turned out.
With just 15 points needed to clinch yet another title, South North had no hesitation in inserting hosts Stockton. After the previous week of rain, bowlers were immediately on top, with the Teessiders reduced to 15-4, and, after a mini-recovery to 63-5, their last five wickets then went down for just 26 more runs.
Stephen Humble (4-25) and Jonny Wightman (4-26) caused the damage, and, with only two men reaching double figures ,the home team were back in the shed after just 28.4 overs, with only 89 on the board.
Another 24.2 overs later it was all over, Rob Peyton’s 68-ball 59 rushing the perennial champions to another pennant.
At the opposite end of the table, the big relegation battle went in favour of a Gateshead Fell side now supremely versed in pulling off escape acts, only this time they look to have given themselves a much easier route to safety after defeating Blaydon by six wickets at Eastwood Gardens.
The visitors were in the wars immediately, their first two wickets falling with just four runs on the board, and when three more went down in the 50s it looked like an early finish was on the cards.
But a battling 107-ball 48 from Geoff Stewart, followed by an unbeaten half-century from Graeme Bridge, enabled a semi-decent total of 156 to be posted before Rob Stacey (4-26) cleaned up at the end.
Stacey then laid claim to the man-of-the-match accolade with a rock-solid opening 56. With partner Tom Pinkney hitting 42 from 48 balls, the serial escapologists weren’t going to be denied as they eased to a six-wicket success in 47.2 overs.
The win, their fourth in five games, lifted Fell 24 points clear of their dismayed opponents, who now look likely to be relegated for the first time.
Chester-le-Street’s disappointing end to a campaign which promised so much, continued with a dour draw against Durham Academy’s youngsters, who set them a challenging target of 254-8 after 74 from Jack Burnham and a half-century from Chris McBride. Liam Trevaskis added 36 and Brydon Carse 28, with Josh Wilson taking 2-57.
An opening stand of 48 set the Cestrians away on their chase, but, when three wickets fell for one run with the score on 106m the innings became a drawn-out trudge towards safety, which was eventually achieved on 144-7 after 55 overs of batting.
Simon Birtwisle (38), George Harrison (30) and Quentin Hughes (26) top-scored for Chester.
It was Chester’s fourth game without a win and they could even be in danger of losing the runners-up spot following Newcastle’s four-wicket win over Benwell Hill in which Callum Harding took 8-16.
South Shields aren’t mathematically out of the relegation woods yet (although it would take something dramatic for them to be overhauled) following a five-wicket home defeat at the hands of Tynemouth, who successfully chased down a modest 129.
It wasn’t all plain sailing, though, as the winners lost four wickets cheaply before Matthew Brown (35) and Tahir Khan (47 not out) steadied the ship.
Allan Worthy got the 60 he needed to become the first man in NEPL history to score 10,000 career league runs, going on to make 77, with 15 fours, as Hetton Lyons posted 156 all out at Whitburn, where Kieran Waterson took four wickets. Cameron Grimwood made 21, while Scott Condy and Mark Elliott both struck twice.
Whitburn were struggling in the run chase on 95-7 before number nine batsman Mark Elliott (32) joined Dan Shurben (66 from 126 balls) in an unbroken match-winning partnership worth 65 runs as Whitburn won by three wickets. Andrew Turns added 28, with Jonathan Malkin grabbing 3-47 and Josh Coughlin 2-56.