A SURPRISE defeat for the leaders, Darlington, has opened up the championship fight with five clubs now back in the reckoning and the second half of the season set for a grandstand finish.

Barnard Castle, with a tense last six overs in which they had to score 40 runs with just two wickets remaining, gave the Quakers a bruising to leave them just 11 points ahead of Richmondshire and 14 from Stokesley, both of whom maintained the high quality form that makes it hard to forecast the ultimate champions. Barney and Great Ayton have also rejoined as title outsiders.

Darlington’s defeat in the last over at Feethams meant they had squandered a 34 point lead in just four weeks, having lost two of their last three after an outstanding first half of the season in which they enjoyed 12 games without a single defeat and chalked up seven victories.

There was no sign of the impending doom when they reached one of their better scores of the summer, 182-7, after Doug Mulholland hit an unbeaten 60 from 65 balls with 4 fours, and Liam Coates (38) and Matty Brown (27) dug in for a partnership of 44 for the fourth wicket following early dismissals.

James Finch took three wickets from 15 economical overs and then went on to become the match winner with an unbeaten 55, including six fours and a six from 68 balls, despite Jonny Barnes (5-29 from 17 overs with eight maidens) helping to winkle out half the side for just 84 runs.

Simon Tennant (30) set the tone for the recovery with Jack Robinson (25) chipping in.

Then stumper Justin Hesp shared the final stand of 20 with Finch in which they needed three runs to win from the last over.

Richmond didn’t have things all their own way at Seaton Carew where it needed a stand of 42 for the seventh wicket from Sam Wood (34 not out) and Lewis Stabler (22) to swing the game back in their favour. Needing 179 for victory they lost the in-form Mike Layfield before he could score, Shani Dissanayake for 39 and Gary Pratt on 32. Rob Carr and Andy Fleming had gone with the score on 122-6, still needing 57 to win.

But they got over the line to win by three wickets as Wood and his partner, the Yorkshire starlet, showed the batting strength of the Dalesmen.

Seaton batted well for their 178-9 with their professional, Sanjaya Rodrigo making 74 from 97 balls with ten fours and a six.

Third-placed Stokesley steamrollered close neighbours Marton to gain revenge for an early season defeat. The thoughts of the Marton players could well have been on joining the festivities at their own club ground to celebrate a 150th birthday rather than on the cricket as they flopped bigtime.

They were bowled out for just 80 with their last six wickets falling without a run being scored, the rarest of records.

Only Richard Hawthorne, with 34, was happy at the crease.

Stokesley skipper, Andrew Weighell, had the brilliant figures of six wickets for 28 runs with four maidens in his 13.2 overs. James Beaumont (2-6 from five overs) also excelled.

Stokesley went on to win by nine wickets in the tenth over after James Weighell hit a whirlwind 67runs from 29 balls with nine fours and four sixes.

Great Ayton moved back in touch with the leading four after gaining a 25-points win over strugglers Saltburn. They won by a massive 163 runs after smashing 265-7 and then skittling out their opponents for just 102.

Chris Batchelor was unbeaten on 124, his second century in three weeks, sharing an opening partnership of 155 with Nick Hendrie (65).

Batchelor faced 148 balls and hit 15 boundaries while his opening partner hit six fours and two sixes in a 90 ball knock.

The single joy for the Seasiders’ skipper, Steve Purcifer, was his own bowling success, 6-70 in 11 overs. Joe Marsay (4-18) and Michael Croft (4-18) had Saltburn all at sea with only Niraj Patel (46) resisting.

Redcar and Middlesbrough grabbed vital wins, only their second, to put space between themselves and the two bottom clubs.

An opening stand of 211 between Paul Johnston (125 from 109 balls with 98 in boundaries) and professional, Whalid Ghauri (81 not out from 91 balls) ended Boro’s worrying run of poor form and set back Guisborough’s hopes of being the season’s title chasing dark horses. James Lowe took four wickets as the Priory set a target of 226 for victory.

Redcar hammered Hartlepool after being set 144 to win with Ollie Rodgers top scoring with 55 after the spin of Mohammed Zahid (3-23) and Mohammud Saad (2-47) was again impressive.

And Sedgefield, set to score 176 to win by Marske, came to within 17 runs after Mark Davies (56 not out) led a recovery from 89-5 to share a winning draw.