COLCHESTER and East Essex Cricket Club have returned to the Shepherd Neame Essex League top flight after a two-year absence.

Darren Eckford's side secured the division one title with a game to spare, after playing out a draw at second-placed Woodford Wells in their penultimate match of the campaign.

The hosts declared on 273 for seven off 48 overs and Colchester held on for a draw on 179 for nine, to clinch promotion.

The leadership and experience of skipper Eckford, along with player-coach and fellow Kiwi Jonny Bassett-Graham, has been pivotal in the club's success, according to club chairman Andrew Kennedy.

He said: “Darren and Jonny have played a massive part in our success.

“It’s been really good that players have stepped up and that’s the result of having a good captain and a good coach to help them.

“It’s a very different vibe to last year and one of the reasons for that is there’s a bit more experience.

“The captain and coach last year were very inexperienced.

“The under-19 success has been critical – seven or eight of the players in that squad have played for the first XI, at some point in the season.

“One of the most encouraging things about this season is that we’ve managed to keep a fairly consistent squad but when the young players have come in like Guy Haines and Charlie Allison, they’ve done very well.”

Colchester faced a promotion-chasing Woodford Wells side who were hungry for maximum points, to close the gap on the leaders.

The hosts elected to bat first after winning the toss and although Ben Stephens (2-42) and Kieran Savill (2-38) bowled well, the hosts declared on 273 for seven with two overs remaining.

Feroze Ahmed (32) got the chase off to a brisk start but after he was dismissed, there were few partnerships of note.

In the end, Simon Fernandes (35 not out), skipper Darren Eckford (25) and Ben Stephens (four no) helped them bat out for a draw, to clinch promotion with a game to spare.

Colchester's second team need to take something from their final game at Belhus this weekend to be absolutely sure of their Second XI division one survival, for another season.

They lost to Chingford by 63 runs, last weekend.