Spofforth won it last year, Ouseburn ran them close but Pannal are back in the top flight so where the 2014 Theakston Nidderdale League crown will end up is proving quite a conundrum.
Captain of the reigning champions Tom Clark is expecting one of the tightest battles for some years.
Spofforth have added Craig Hunt from Aire Wharfe outfit Otley and Mike White of Wetherby Leaguers Bilton-in-Ainsty to their ranks.
“It’s going to be a tricky one, everyone’s out to beat us but that’s a challenge we’ll relish,” said Clark.
“I think it’s actually going to be one of the tightest seasons people have seen for a while.
“Masham and Darley seemed to be the whipping boys for want of a better world last year, but two very strong teams have come back up in Pannal and Burton Leonard.
“As many as seven or eight teams could be challenging. I think Killinghall will be strong, they’ve been there or thereabouts for a few years, have some good young players and everyone’s a year old and more experienced.”
Clark believes Spofforth’s two new recruits will bolster their options as they set out to defend the title.
“I played with Mike in the Wetherby League, he’s our new opening bowler, while Craig is a top order batsman from the Aire Wharfe,” said Clark.
“They’ll definitely strengthen the team, while we’ve got Will Long back for another year as our overseas.
“We’ve been netting since January, so everyone’s itching to get going.”
Bouncing back after just one year are Pannal, captained by Andy Johnson.
Rumours of who Pannal have signed have been doing the rounds, but the skipper is keeping his feet firmly on the ground regarding their championship prospects.
Pannal have captured Rob Ellis and Matt Henry from Aire Wharfe champions Beckwithshaw while Aussie Andrew Brigden-Guthrie joins as overseas.
“We’re very pleased to be back in Division One, we only had one year away so it’s nice to get promoted straight back,” said Johnson.
“In the main, we’re looking to consolidate our place in Division One, and see how we do, and hopefully get some results against some of the teams expected to be up there.
“We can’t be favourites. We’ve only just been promoted so we don’t want to overplay our chances. We did well last year but it’s far too early say we’re favourites.
“Ouseburn and Spofforth are the teams you’d expect to be up there. Spofforth are the champions so you can’t look much past them.
“Killinghall have a good young team, and Blubberhouses are always there or thereabouts.
“It’s going to be a strong league this year, so hopefully a lot of good cricket.”
As reigning Atkinson-Swires Trophy holders, Ouseburn were a lot of people’s pick for the 2013 title, but an ill-timed draw opened the door for Spofforth.
Skipper Chris Morrison is hoping to draw on the exuberance of youth as Ouseburn continue to bring junior talent on, but he wants his team to keep the pedal down throughout the summer.
Impressive youngster Sam Dale will miss the first five weeks of the season as he is in Australia with Jamie Bryant.
Pete Townsend meanwhile joins Burton Leonard but John Moorhouse joins from Burton to captain the 2nds. Russell Robshaw slots in from Goldsborough.
Wicketkeeper Stewart Horton is this year’s overseas, joining from Balcatta CC in Australia.
“I think we choked a bit last year, we took our foot off the gas in the league, thinking we had an easy run-in and it cost us,” said Morrison.
“We got a bit too relaxed, and then had a game at home where we tied with Spofforth. I think I wanted to go for six points rather than five, wickets rather than runs and it cost us.
“We’ll have to see. We’ve got a lot of juniors coming through, hopefully some of them will step up and push it a bit further.
“Pannal will be strong this year. I think Spofforth were perhaps lucky last year.
“On paper, we had the best team which we proved in the cup final but as I say, I think we could say we choked, and we lost the league rather they won it.”
Promoted alongside Pannal are Burton Leonard, captained by Matthew Rangeley.
They bring Australian Nicky Smith, 20, in as opening bowler.
“Hopefully we can establish ourselves as a regular First Division team and aim as high as we can. I think we’ll be looking at mid-table,” said Rangeley.
“We’ve lost John Moorhouse to Ouseburn but brought in Pete Townsend from Ouseburn, and we’re waiting to finalise paperwork on our overseas.
“Pannal look strong judging from the people they’ve brought in, but I think Ouseburn could well be up there too.”
Helperby finished top five in 2013, so skipper Matt Cavanagh is aiming to consolidate the work of last summer and hopefully move a bit further up the table.
Bowler-batsman Atish Chouhan of Zimbabwe is Helperby’s overseas.
“This year’s about building on last season,” said Cavanagh.
“We had a good summer, our seconds won promotion to Division Five and the firsts finished the highest we’ve finished, in fifth.
“I felt we should have challenged better in the second half of the season, but we’ve got a good young side and hopefully they will step up and compete.
“Spofforth should be favourites again, along with Ouseburn and Pannal, I hear they’ve signed two good additions.”
Rob Nelson takes over the captain’s reins at Bishop Thornton and is eager to see the side do better in 2014.
He’s captured Australian Craig Baldwin from Melbourne Mazenods as opening bat and wicketkeper, but has two other irons in the fire he’s awaiting confirmation on.
“We just stayed up last year, so we should be looking at a mid-table finish ideally,” said Nelson.
“We’ve lost our opening bowler Max Sharp, but other than that it’ll be a fairly similar team to last year.
“I’ve heard a few rumours about who Pannal have sgined but Spofforth and Ouseburn are likely to be up there. “
Stephen Ellison is the new skipper at Dacre Banks, who have lost a few players in the off season.
Last season’s captain Duncan Naylor has transferred to Division Two team Darley, batsman Asif Ayub has moved to play in the Bradford league for Saltaire CC and all-rounder AJ Clarke has also left for pastures new.
“Last season’s 2nd team captain and batsman Tim Carrington is moving up to play in the first team this year,” said Ellison.
“Our overseas player is an Australian all-rounder called Stephen Butler.
“In terms of who will win the league, I think it will be between Ouseburn and Pannal.”
Duncan Morrell remains at the helm at Goldsborough, who have landed a new overseas in the shape of Luke Forge, last seen hitting 703 runs for Bishop Thornton in 2013.
The Karramomus CC top order bat will line up alongside a trio of new signatures.
Morrell said: “Over the winter we have signed some additional talent to our playing squads, Luke Bickers from Pannal, Kevan Ibbotson from Staveley and David Nudds from Follifoot.
“With some exciting youngsters coming through the ranks, the 2nd XI are looking for promotion out of the Fifth Division after two very close seasons fighting for promotion.
“We are always on the look-out for new players so anyone who wants to should contact us if they’re interested in playing.”
Elsewhere, Toby Stirke will captain Alne this year, bringing in Aussie Luke Vincent as overseas.Bash Khan remains as skipper at Blubberhouses while Lenny McKittrick takes over as captain at 2012 champions Hampsthwaite.
At Killinghall, Tony Whittaker continues to skipper a promising young crop.