WITH all eyes fixed firmly on Denton Bank where the long awaited return to action of England international Ben Stokes was taking place, South North and Hetton Lyons were quietly going about their business and establishing a two team stronghold at the top, while champions Stockton were displaying their finest qualities to move up to third place.

It was natural for the re-emergence of Stokes to grab all the headlines, but even though he showed the form which made him one of the few Ashes hits of the winter he needed a bit of luck, and Benwell Hill were left to rue two missed chances to claim his scalp fairly cheaply. So cheaply in fact that the first dropped catch occurred when he hadn’t got off the mark, and the second when he had just reached his half century. He made Hill pay for their largesse by cracking ten fours and four sixes before eventually falling three short of a comeback century.

Benwell Hill’s Zohaib Khan went into the match with an incredible bowling average after taking nine wickets for just 17 runs in his previous two outings, but though he was the Hill’s main wicket taker again his three victims cost him 98 runs on this occasion as the Academy racked up 257-7 before declaring after 60 overs.

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Home opener Ben Smith then played the sheet anchor role to perfection, making 55 from 172 balls. When Khan eventually arrived at the crease he decided to inject some urgency into the ponderous reply, racing to an unbeaten 106 from just 97 balls, his knock including eight fours and six sixes. The brilliance of his innings left Hill wondering what might have been as their innings closed on 240-4, just 18 short of a famous victory, and with plenty of batting fuel left in the tank. Stokes had a gentle six over workout with the ball, although didn’t claim a wicket.

The failure to win cost Hill their second place in the table as both Hetton Lyons and Stockton overtook them.

The Lyons victory at Jesmond featured three centuries, Allan Worthy (119) notching up his first three figure score for his new team, and Pakistani Lal Kumar (109) increasing Newcastle’s pain as the visitors racked up 291-5 before declaring. Jacques Du Toit (119) then added to the run fest, but his innings stood glaringly alone in the evening sunlight as Gary Scott (4-7) proved an unsolvable problem as the hosts slumped to 183 all out.

The maximum points haul took Hetton into second, 14 behind South North (175-8) who beat Whitburn (121) to maintain a healthy lead, while champions Stockton showed the form that took them to the title last year with a solid performance at Tynemouth.

The Teessiders were indebted to skipper Kevin Ward for a run-a-ball 59 which rescued his team from a precarious 45-4, Joel Thwaites’ late 34 also important as Stockton eased up to 175. Tynemouth opener Nick Armstrong was then the only thing between the home team and a drubbing. He hung in as the hosts collapsed to 37-5, Chris Hooker (4-35) causing the early mayhem, going on to make 84 from 101 balls, and threatening to single-handedly take the game away from the title-holders. But when he became one of Richard Waite’s four victims that was more or less it, the last wicket falling shortly after to leave Tynemouth beaten by 18 runs.

In the day’s other top flight games there was more woe for Gateshead Fell, their eight wicket defeat at Ashbrooke leaving them 25 points adrift at the foot of the table, while the paint was drying at Blaydon as the home team responded to Chester-le-Street’s 226-9 with a risk averse 158-3 in 60 overs.

The First Division league programme finally got underway, with victories for Brandon, Washington and Sacriston suggesting they are not out of place as favourites for honours, while Eppleton and South Shields earned unexpectedly handsome wins to boost their confidence for the season ahead.