WITH the league table beginning to take early season shape today’s fixture list pits four of the top five teams against each other, with the match-of-the-day taking place at the newly revamped Feethams where leaders Darlington entertain second-placed Stokesley.

The Quakers’ campaign began in subdued fashion with a home draw against Marske, but since then three straight wins have pushed Darlington to the top of the pack, with several players in outstanding form.

The kingpin is Jonny Barnes, who seems to be enjoying himself now the shackles of playing as a professional are off. Barnes had been the longest serving ‘pro’ in the NYSD, giving Northallerton more than a decade of unbroken service before moving to his home town club a few years ago, but despite a glittering personal playing record there is one thing that has eluded him in a career stretching back to the eighties, and that is a league title.

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After two successive seasons of finishing as runners-up there is a feeling this could be the big one for a club who have not tasted title success since 1990, and the form of Barnes, who already has 17 league wickets at an average of 6.29, is one solid reason for that optimism. Another is the arrival of Bangladeshi Test player Rajin Saleh who stepped off an airplane last Friday and then proceeded to score 146 runs over the bank holiday weekend as Darlington claimed top spot.

The Quakers will be missing one key player today. Yorkshire’s Dan Hodgson has moved to Derbyshire on loan as wicket keeper, and his place goes to the returning Ben Wicling. Stokesley arrive at Feethams on the crest of a wave, with all three of their wins to date coming as a result of batting first, and skipper Andrew Weighell being the first Premier captain to have the courage to bite the bullet and bat first when winning the toss under the new points system.

Weighell has been one of the main reasons for Stokesley’s early season success, excelling with bat and ball, while the availability to him of younger brother James, who is on Durham’s books, has also provided a boost. With James Beaumont adding solidity at the top of the order as well as providing his usual top class off-spin, Barnes’ former Northallerton colleague Richard Chandler in career-best bowling form last time out, and South African quickie Dieter Klein easing his way back to full fitness, the club have plenty of options in attack and are unchanged for Feethams.

Leven Park is the venue for fourth versus fifth, with Great Ayton taking on Barnard Castle who have so far lived up to their billing of dark horses in the title race.

Both clubs have three wins under their belt, with Ayton’s South African run machine, Nick Hendrie, the top man in every sense after racking up 278 in his four games at an eye-watering average of 139. Barney have their own men in form with Aussie Ben Turner looking good, and Simon Tennant matching him run for run. With first-class world record holder Aamer Sajjad still to blast off there is every indication that it could be a run-filled afternoon at the Park. The hosts are unchanged, whilst Barney have Ben Usher and Mike Dixon back.

At long last the visa issues which were delaying the arrival of Marske’s Sri Lankan professional are over. Nadeera Nawela, a seam bowling all-rounder who has represented his country at A team level, was expected to arrive in the country in time to make his debut for the Seasiders at Acklam Park this afternoon. Whilst Gary Lynch misses the game, Jordan Carroll does return against Boro who will have James Lowe back at the helm and Adil Ditta, who missed both games over the bank holiday, also plays.

Champions Richmondshire, who ‘enjoyed’ dramatically differing fortunes in their two games last week, welcome Shani Dissanayake back to the fold at last, and he goes straight into the team to play at Saltburn. Mike Layfield is expected to keep wicket in the continuing absence of Kevin Forbes as he continues his recuperation from illness. The Seasiders have lost Dan Conway to work commitments for the next month or so.

Hartlepool certainly missed Neil Coverdale and Callum Prosser on Monday at Stokesley, but they both return for the Park Drive clash with unchanged Guisborough, while elsewhere Seaton Carew expect to be unchanged when they entertain a Redcar team which includes Dale Metcalfe, and Marton have to reckon without the services of Ryan Gibson at Sedgefield with the youngster back with Yorkshire Academy.

The Division One title race is already bubbling up into a fascinating contest, with just one point separating the top three sides, and several others in the frame just behind the leading trio. Third plays second today when Marton meet Blackhall, while rejuvenated Norton, who won Division Two upon their return to the NYSD in 2013 and have three wins and a draw to date, host table-toppers Whitby.