Top two clash in Premier Division as title race comes to the boil
THE Premier Division title race comes to the boil tomorrow when leaders Exeter face second-placed Heathcoat on the County Ground.
Exeter, four points clear of Heathcoat at the top, will be odd-on favourites to lift the title if they win the match.
The County Grounders’ final game is away to doomed Hatherleigh, who are unlikely to spring the sort of shock that would hand the title to Heathcoat.
A Heathcoat win this Saturday will send the title scrap into a last-day cliffhanger.
Heathcoat can’t do enough to claim the title this Saturday – and even if they do win they have to negotiate their way past Sandford on the last day.
As Sandford are scrapping for their lives at the bottom of the table – three wins on the spin are a signal of their intent – there won’t be any easy points to be had.
There may be pressure on Heathcoat, but it a type of pressure Heathcoat captain Peter Randerson can cope with.
“Everyone has been looking forward to this game all year - it's the stuff you dream about when the league season starts,” said Randerson, whose side beat North Devon by 132 runs last time out.
“Exeter are a great team and have been hard to beat all summer.
“It's going to be a hard-fought game and the winners will probably win the league.
“We played some of the best cricket of the summer in the past two weeks and are all very much looking forward to this weekend.”
Alex Barrow, the Exeter captain, has a healthy respect for the title rivals, who won the first encounter between the clubs this season by seven runs.
“Liam Lewis, Jackson Thompson, Pete himself, Sam Smith, Jack Dart – you are talking about a strong side with many players who can influence a game with the bat,” said Barrow.
“Heathcoat have a strong bowling side – I think Malcolm Cloete is the leading wicket-taker in the division – and it goes without saying it will be a hard game.
“It is the sort of game you think about and visualise situation and scenarios that might come up and how you will deal with them.
“Because of the consequences, it is a one-off game, a lot like knock-out cricket.
“In many ways it is much the same as last season around this time when we were at the other end of the table. I am far happier being at the top this time.”
At the other end of the table all the interest is in which two teams out of North Devon (174pts), Bovey (168) Bradninch (161) or Sandford (157) will be going down with seemingly doomed Hatherleigh (130).
Bovey Tracey and North Devon are both in a limbo land above the bottom three where they could be dragged into the relegation mire.
Skipper Toby Codd knows Bovey are not the only club in jeopardy, but they are the only club he is focussed on.
“We just need to concentrate on ourselves and getting one more win,” said Codd, whose team take on Hatherleigh.
“The return of Andy Fairbairn and Lewis Hammett should strengthen the batting against Hatherleigh this Saturday.”
Hatherleigh skipper Mark Lake hopes to go out with a bang now relegation seems inevitable.
Lake’s men are teetering over the relegation precipice after they lost by seven wickets at Plymouth.
Defeat left Hatherleigh 32 points away from safety at the bottom of the table with two games and 40 points to play for.
Lake wants a win or two to wind-up the season.
“It would be nice to get at least one more win this season because I feel we've played better cricket than the three wins we have suggests,” said Lake.
Zipo Zondo has played last game for the club as he has returned to Zimbabwe to prepare for the new season there.
Lake comes back after two games out due to injury. In addition to the departed Zondo, Rob Fishleigh, Ryan Davies and Sean Letheren are all missing.
North Devon go to Sidmouth looking for the win they need to be on the safe side.
Sandford entertain Plymouth looking for a fifth straight win in their attempt to stay up.
“Five in a row which would be a great achievement for a club that has spent all year near the bottom of the division,” said skipper Richard Foan.
“Obviously it will mean nothing if we don't stay up, but we have shown what we can achieve when we play as a team.
“We have a tough last two games against two very strong sides (Heathcoat are the last-day opposition) but we will give it our all and fight for every point.”
Bradninch, at home to Exmouth, have been playing without Zimbabwean Tendai Maruma for the last three rounds as he went home in early August.
The four-point gap between Bradninch and Sandford could easily be wiped out by a defeat, a point not lost on skipper Gary Chappell.
“Obviously a massive game and one we are looking forward to,” said Chappell.
“We always enjoy playing Exmouth and have a healthy rivalry.
“They'll no doubt be keen to beat us, so I'm expecting them to show a bit more character and perform better than they have done over the last five games.
“We are just about as strong as we can be, albeit no overseas player.”