RECORD BREAKING champions Richmondshire are gunning for a third consecutive title when the 2014 season opens this afternoon, but they are likely to face some serious challenges to their supremacy as several clubs look to have recruited well over the winter months.

The Dalesmen retained their title in style last year, racking up a new record points total along the way, and they have kept virtually the whole squad together under the leadership of 2013 NE player of the year Gary Pratt, which means star overseas performer Shani Dissanayake is back for his twelfth summer in a row.

The popular Sri Lankan was in outstanding all-round form last time out although it is uncertain whether he will arrive in the country in time to play in today’s opener at Sedgefield. With promising youngster Rob Carr benefitting from a winter’s cricket in Australia, Brad Elsworth returning to full fitness and Lewis Stabler expected to play when Yorkshire commitments allow, Richmond look to have the firepower to make three in a row a distinct possibility.

Loading article content

In each of the last two campaigns Darlington have been the team providing the Dalesmen’s sternest challenge, and the Quakers believe they are strong enough to go that crucial one step further this time around.

Bangladeshi Test player Rajin Saleh is back at Feethams. He last played for the club in 2011 when he scored over 1000 runs, and with 24 Tests under his belt, and more than 6500 first-class runs to his name, the Quakers are looking to him to spearhead their batting efforts. Other new arrivals include Yorkshire’s Dan Hodgson, who will play for his home club when county commitments permit, and his brother Tom.

Marton finished a distant third to the leading pair last season, but they look likely to prove a major threat this time with Pakistani Kashif Siddiq the new overseas man. He is an influential all-rounder who has scored more than 6500 first-class runs as a left-handed top order batter, and supplements this with some handy leg spin.

With Richard Hawthorne having arrived from Sedgefield, Andy Waters from Consett, and Jonny Spillane from Thornaby via Middlesbrough, the added bonus of Aussie Sam Jones looks to have given the Kerridge holders a wealth of talent to call upon despite the loss of Whalid Ghauri and Danny Wade.

Ghauri’s splendid 2013 summer saw him crowned both the NYSD player of the year and the young player of the year, and after a winter’s cricket down under he should be well set for his first professional appointment. He began his career at Middlesbrough, and he has now returned to Acklam Park to lend skipper and leading all-rounder James Lowe a hand.

Whilst Durham star Ryan Buckley has moved to Blaydon, his brother Callum, who headlined in Durham’s under 17 county championship winning team last year, has followed his sibling’s route to the Boro from Darlington RA, although his Academy commitments may limit his appearances. With Mattie Connolly back at his home club, and Gary Burgum arriving from Billingham to keep wicket, Lowe is confident that his side can improve on last season’s sixth place finish.

For a small village club Great Ayton have consistently punched above their weight since arriving in the Premier Division back in 2004, and they are delighted to have South African Nick Hendrie back for another campaign following the impact he made last year when the villagers wrapped up two of the four major titles.

English pro Chris Batchelor also returns to Leven Park. He has been a consistent performer since his arrival from Yorkshire in 2007, and now has in excess of 8000 runs for the club in his seven seasons. Jon Grainge leads the side and expects great things from his young opening pace attack of Lewis Harper and Joe Marsay.

If you’re looking for a dark horse in the championship race look no further than Barnard Castle. Pakistani first-class world record holder Aamer Sajjad is back for a second term at Vere Road after another winter of successful top level cricket in his home country, and with Australian first grade player Ben Turner coming over from Brisbane, and former Yorkshire Premier League top order batter Andrew Heron arriving from Sheffield United, the Barney boys look primed for action under the ebullient leadership of James Finch.

Whilst the title may seem a long term objective at the moment, there is no doubting the sense of anticipation and excitement at Seaton Carew as they prepare for their first ever season of top flight cricket.

They are the last of the top performing B Division teams of the 1980’s to reach the holy grail of the Premier Division, but they will be hoping to make up for lost time and join the likes of Richmondshire, Great Ayton, Stokesley and Barnard Castle who have all made impressive marks at the higher level.

Seaton have gone for home grown talent for this first tilt at the big boys, with Stuart Lobb returning to Hornby Park to lead a side which will also include Danny Evans, the ex-Durham and Middlesex fast bowler and an original product of the Club’s junior set-up. Their first ever overseas man is Sri Lankan Sanjaya Rodrigo, who played for his country at under 19 level and has extensive experience of English conditions – although he may not have come across a bracing Seaton sea breeze before, something he will possibly encounter in today’s home opener against Saltburn!

One team delighted to see Seaton in the big time are neighbours Hartlepool, with the two derby matches already being looked forward to. It’s one in and one out for the Pools, with the blow of Adil Arif’s move to Cambridge University being softened by the arrival of former Cheshire League all-rounder Matthew Bebbington. Marc Symington once again takes over the mantle of captaincy to give last year’s skipper Jack Wilkinson a break.

And talking of local derbies Marske’s return to the Premier Division has once again resurrected the seaside jousts against close rivals Redcar and Saltburn.

The Windy Hill Lane outfit have recruited Nadeera Nawela as their overseas pro’, the Sri Lankan A team man having represented his country at every junior level and amassed more than 5000 first-class runs. And another man with a similar top-level tally has been engaged as English professional, although just how much will be seen of county star Adam Lyth will very much depend on his Yorkshire commitments.

Neighbours Redcar have stuck with the same line-up as 2013, with Dale Metcalfe the only new face following his move from Thornaby, but it’s all change at Saltburn with Niraj Patel the new overseas interest. Patel, from India, looks to be a useful signing having played for Rajasthan Royals in the IPL, as well as possessing a first-class batting average approaching 40. He is joined at the club by John Watson (Darlington) and Dan Conway (Bishop Auckland).

Stokesley have been forced into a hurried change of plans after Gurshwin Rabie’s return to the club fell through at the very last moment. The South African pace man struck gold when he last played for the North Yorkshire outfit in late 2011, and having agreed terms with him last autumn he had been expected to provide a major boost.

But the setback has been quickly overcome with the signing of another South African, Dieter Klein. The 25-year-old left-arm quickie can also bat a bit, and alongside a decent first-class record boasts several successful seasons in club cricket in this country. Durham are allowing James Weighell to play for his home club at weekends, and he is already in top form having cracked a century earlier this week against the Yorkshire Academy.

Guisborough will be captained by Phil Holdsworth this time around, but he will have to manage without the services of Richie Evans, Stuart Lobb and Chris Nicholls who have all moved on. However, Roshen Silva comes to Fountains Garth after some impressive recent performances for Sri Lanka A against England Lions, and given that he averages over 50 in the first-class game he could be one to watch.

Sedgefield may be in for a difficult season having been hit by a blitz of departures which included their two pros from last year, Nisal Randika and Steve Naylor. With Richie Hawthorne, Dave Cross, Martin Lower, Adam Randall and James Kemp also gone it looks likely to be a testing time for the Station Road team, although their spirits have been lifted over the last few days by the arrival of Mark Davies as pro, and the signings of former Newcastle skipper Niall Penfold and his Jesmond teammate James Davidson – just in time for their baptism of fire against the champions this afternoon.