Before a ball is bowled the 2014 Westmorland Cricket League (WCL) championship campaign is shaping up to be eagerly contested though there is an out and out favourite.

That kiss of death is firmly planted on the right cheek of Shireshead and Forton Cricket Club who are looking to shed a 23-year burden of expectancy. 1990 was the last time they held the Bateman Shield. An apparent change in club philosophy is likely to have the desired effect. It’s a funny old game though and you never know.

It was way back in 1998 that Shireshead became the first village club to field three teams with the intention of spawning from the bottom up and thus developing home-grown talent. The theory does not always work to the full in practice. Last year saw the club acquire the services of Peter Wilson whose statistics as an all-rounder are second to none. This year they have enlisted his old partner in crime Danny Wilkinson from Westgate. In the Westgate glory days of 2000-12, it was the dynamic force of Wilson and Wilkinson that fuelled the successes.

Reuniting the legendary partnership is a major coup but likely to make the critical difference is James Rafferty, who will also be reunited with his brother Nick from their Warton days. Still only in his early mid-20s, the younger brother is the fastest bowler seen in the WCL for many a day and capable of blowing away batsmen. The arrival of Wilkinson and Rafferty is partly offset by the loss of Tom Jacques (job) and Gareth Jennings (to Garstang) but if captain Paul Yates can keep his troops happy, Shireshead’s long wait should be over.

So who are likely to be killjoys? Defending champions Arnside for starters though there is a feeling abroad that the runes fell in their favour last year. Everything that could have gone right did go right. When you start to believe your name is on the trophy confidence surges.

There is no denying the facts, however. Adam Richardson had a fabulous season including breaking a 37-year-old record and holding onto 23 catches. Adrian Lee was his usual ‘Mr Consistency’ and Alex Davidson proved a match-winner. The downside is the early season absence of student David Birch (fast bowler) and Kevin Howarth resisting the call to arms except in extreme circumstances.

Milnthorpe will have to start winning before June if they are to mount a credible challenge. You cannot build on a clay foundation. They are also feeling ‘Dem bones, dem dry and ageing bones’. For the Baldwin brothers, Mike Wills and Steve Bowman, another championship would be fitting and with Phil Bovis fronting the batting not out of the question. The outstanding Bovis achieved something unique last season. He has now won the league batting averages with three different clubs. The contribution of youthful captain Lee Illingworth will be critical.

Unique to the Warton club was the sight of just three players in both the batting and bowling averages, the legacy of a mass exodus of players not seen since Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt. The rebuilding process has begun in earnest. New captain Gareth Finney has seen the return of father and son combination Ricky and Ryan Nelson, with rated ex-Trimpell players Steve Pemberton and Stuart Mayor adopting Warton colours. It is only five years ago Nelson junior was representing Cumberland, so much is expected of him on Warton’s county-standard wicket. These four players added to Dan Dixon – the 2010 league batting average winner – and a host of very talented in-house young players could see Finney lead them to the promised land. The kiss of death placed on the left cheek!

It seems unlikely Shireshead will face a threat from any other quarter. Burneside and Bolton le Sands have lost key players, cherry-picked by Northern League clubs. Ryan Shepherd and Mark Clarkson respectively are off to Kendal and Netherfield. Both losses are severe but this is how the system should work. Aspiring to challenge yourself in a higher standard is always to betterment or reality check.

At Burneside, it is hoped the continued improvement of young Lee Tattersall will compensate to a degree as with the returning Tim Miller at ‘Sands. Other than that both clubs will parade the usual suspects. Big runs from David Batty and Graham Beaumont respectively would hugely help the cause. ‘Sands in particular may have a difficult season. Much will depend on Adam Dyson’s bowling.

History suggests, however, that it will be promotees Ambleside and Sedgwick that will have to fight hardest on their beautiful grounds to maintain premiership status. For the Rydal club it will be their third attempt to do so since 2008. But hope springs eternal. In captain Oli Wileman they have a top player who hit a club record 167 last year. The loss of Nathan Tolladay (army) hits the bowling department but with the return of Tom Barton, the signing on of Greg Weddell and the part-time reappearance of fellow South African Donovan Du Plessis, the weakness in batting should be assuaged to some extent.

The start of the new season will start with a sombre and reflective minute on the evocative Sedgwick House Ground in remembrance of 18-year-old Dylan Sagar who died in a car crash at Christmas. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, Dylan was one of life’s lovely lads and a joy just to have around. He smiled the smile regardless. That pressed image is the way the club and his family will always remember him.

For Dylan if for no other reason, Jason Dalzell’s team will fight tooth and nail. With the arrival of Mike Robinson from the now lamented Ibis club and that outstanding young player Joe Portman teaming up with Adam Hornby, Mike Bracken and Si Willacy, they do not look a poor side. Neither do Ambleside. Interesting days indeed.

If these ancient clubs manage to hold their own it will put pressure on Silverdale, Windermere and perhaps even Westgate. Despite more of a show from Graham Dodds, there is an air of vulnerability hanging over Silverdale. They are prone to collapse when batting and far too much is expected of Jonny Mason and Paul Moffatt with the ball. Jack Hargreaves and young Ben Letcher will have to stand up and be counted.

At Queen’s Park, Windermere it is transition and re-build time. But with James Crawford and Jono Cooper at the helm there is leadership through example. They know how to compete. Sam Fletcher is back and that’s big. Olly Kilner will score runs as will James Park. Brother Matthew will take wickets. Interesting days indeed.

Which way will it go at Westgate? This is a most intriguing question and one which will only be answered as the season unfolds. As at old rivals Warton, they will have to learn to cope without key personnel. It is impossible to replace the joint loss of Wilson and Wilkinson. They were a double act apart. Fast bowler Dylan Conroy has also gone to Lancaster. That’s another massive blow but Steve Creed is back and so is David Lord. Youngsters James Davies and Sam Frith cut the muster but it’s the lack of penetrative bowling that will concern captain Andrew Hill.

Heysham remain enigmatic. There is no predicting what sort of season they will have. Graham Cassidy has gone to Australia which is a major blow. But Reg Cupit is back and match-winner Sam Calverley is available all season. New captain James Wincup will look to all-rounder Andrew Ideson for salient contributions.