THE first indications that Richmondshire can expect a battle royal if they are to grab their third successive title came in the opening half of a bank holiday weekend which brought shocks and surprises to add spice to an already fascinating start to the season.

Great Ayton raced to one of their most sensational victories against the champions, who suffered one of their biggest ever defeats, while Darlington became the new league leaders after sending Redcar unceremoniously to the foot of the table.

Another major surprise was defeat for Marton, fancied to finish in the championship frame, while Stokesley join Barnard Castle as dark horses after a second win put them in the top three.

Individually the league’s first century of the season was achieved by Saltburn’s John Watson, who moved from Feethams in the close season and shared what may well be a new third wicket club record of 220 with Niraj Patel against Middlesbrough.

It was Watson’s maiden hundred.

But the match of the day at Great Ayton, where Nick Hendrie hit a classy unbeaten 94 to inflict a nine wicket defeat on the visiting Dalesmen, more than lived up to its top billing. Richmondshire’s all out score of 191 was largely due to the revival in the form of opener, James Clarkson (63 with nine fours) and the continued excellent work of Rob Carr (76 with seven boundaries) who both stayed concentrated. Even so, Steve Pennock (5-34 from 12 overs) showed how the big occasion inspires him while the whippy Joe Marsay (3-46) produced a lively start to have the first two wickets down for just 8.

Beaten only twice all last season, the champions were surprisingly overwhelmed by the stroke play of Chris Batchelor (54 with seven fours) and Hendrie, who started cautiously but finished with a flourish with 58 in boundaries including five sixes. Showing growing confidence, Josh Thompson (32 not out) shared the last 90 runs with the South African ‘pro’.

Darlington’s win over Redcar by a margin of 76 runs was a triumph for their newly arrived professional, Rajin Saleh (54) and former ‘pro’, Jon Barnes (6-21), who now has 15 wickets from the first three games. Saleh faced 135 balls and hit four boundaries within 48 hours of stepping off an aircraft from Bangladesh.

He shared a stand of 58 for the second wicket with Liam Coates (42) and 59 for the sixth wicket with Barnes, who then set about dismissing Redcar for just 72 with eight runless overs in his 16.

For Redcar, Mohammed Zahid hit 24 from 27 balls after taking 5-39. Callum Brown got 3-52.

Stokesley pulled off one of the surprises of the day beating local rivals Guisborough by 14 runs. Graham Murray (54 from 69 balls), Phil Holdsworth (36) and Richard Dunn (32) looked like winning the battle, but Andrew Weighell (4-42), Richard Chandler (3- 32) and James Beaumont (2-36) had the final say.

When Stokesley made 175- 9, Weighell, the home skipper, scored 72 from 118 balls.

Marton lost at Hartlepool after being bowled out for 103 with Callum Prosser (6-33 from 14.4 overs) in fiery form.

Replying to the home side’s 179-4, Marton found themselves on 27 for 5 with Prosser taking four of the wickets for just nine runs. But Aussie amateur Sam Jones (47) staged a fightback. Earlier Jonathan Rickard (62) and Craig Symington (51 not out) put Pool on course for a second win in three.

Seaton Carew and Sedgefield both lost heavily to Marske and Barnard Castle respectively. Barney’s James Quinn (5 for 7 from four overs) followed Mike Dixon (2-25) and James Finch (2- 30) in dismissing their weakened and pro-less opponents for just 78. Then Ben Turner (51) and Simon Tennant (20) needed just 19 overs to register a 10 wicket victory. Seaton managed just 126 before their Seaside rivals enjoyed victory by eight wickets.

Acklam Park was again a batsman’s paradise with Middlesbrough’s visit from Saltburn yielding 460 runs as just eight wickets fell. John Watson’s astonishing unbeaten 136 from 169 balls featured 17 boundaries and came after he was ‘bowled’ by a no-ball by Brett Roberts when he had reached 43. Their 247-3 included 78 from new India ‘pro’ Patel. In reply, James Lowe was unbeaten on 91 with seven fours and two sixes from 136 balls.

Boro finished 34 runs behind Saltburn.