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Rafiq determined to make second coming count

Azeem Rafiq's 45 helped Yorkshire pass 400 Getty Images

"I can't tell you that, he's the head coach now," Azeem Rafiq chortles, as he holds back from revealing how often he got Yorkshire's Andrew Gale out in a net session that proved the turning point in Rafiq's remarkable return to professional cricket last season.

Almost two years after leaving the game, the spinning allrounder was back at the Headingley indoor centre he'd attended since a boy, this time attempting to resurrect his career. There was just the small matter of impressing the then-captain Gale and Yorkshire's coaches.

Rafiq offers a smile as he explains the long, arduous journey undertaken, knowing it happily concludes with him re-signing on a one-year contract for the county. A meeting with Yorkshire's director of cricket development and long-term friend Ian Dews in Dubai the previous winter, where Rafiq was coaching and training, set the wheels in motion. But, as Rafiq puts it, no one could have "envisaged what would end up happening" a few months down the line.

"I spoke to Dewsy again at the end of May, mentioning our conversation in Dubai, and I told him I was ready to play," Rafiq says. "A couple of days after, he called saying Gale was preparing for a Championship game and asked if I wanted to come down. So I bowled at Galey for an hour, which went really well. I guess he must've gone and fed that back as I was asked to play a second-team game a few days after."

A little over a week later, Rafiq was back in the first team and picking up the man-of-the-match award in Yorkshire's first NatWest T20 Blast win of 2016. He would finish the season with 242 runs and 24 wickets - 15 of them coming by way of the T20 Blast, as Yorkshire reached Finals Day for the first time in five years. A county cap would be his, too; the moment of shock upon receiving it forever captured in a touching video released by the club on social media.

"I don't know how many times I've watched it now - a lot though. I still watch it. It's a day in my life I'll never forget. It caught me completely by surprise. I thought only Jack Leaning and David Willey were getting their caps, but for Gale to say my name first, I was speechless. I honestly couldn't say a thing. I was so happy. It's been a really tough couple of years, going on a bit longer than that, so to be the 179th person in 150-odd years is just an incredible achievement and something I'm incredibly proud of."

"I know that the times I went through by myself have given me this inner grit. No matter what the situation, I can find a way through"

The pain is still raw for Rafiq as he speaks about those previous struggles. Aged just 23, he recognised the sport he loved was no longer the fun adventure he'd set out on. Frustration had set in. A knee injury stalled his development and he'd been unsuccessful in breaking into Yorkshire's Championship side.

He was released by the club in the summer of 2014 by mutual agreement, with the intention that he could explore first-team opportunities elsewhere. Instead he stepped away from the game.

"I don't think anyone knows what I actually went through," he explains. "The whole process was a lot longer than when I left here, it was probably a year and a half before I left. I'd been struggling for a while with my confidence and after the knee operation I lost a lot of confidence in my body and confidence in myself as a person.

"But I've got a lot of inner belief now. I know that the times I went through by myself have given me this inner grit. No matter what the situation, I can find a way through."

How would he describe that period? "Tough," Rafiq exclaims. "But enjoyable at the same time; an eye-opener. Something that has made me the person I am and the cricketer I will end up being."

Stretched out on a sofa in the indoor training centre, overlooking a pre-season session led by Gale, Rafiq appears at ease with his lot now. While still passionate about the sport, the time out of professional cricket has allowed him to foster a new appreciation and attitude for it compared to the approach his younger self took.

"It's massively changed the way I look at cricket," Rafiq says. "This is a beautiful game that I think when you've had it a bit early - and I think back and I played a lot of my cricket at a young age, a kid - sometimes you take it for granted and I can say I did.

"You do the training and you're sort of sleeping through it. You come in and go away and you don't know what you've done. I think it is easily done. I don't think it just happens in this sport or this walk of life, I think it happens a lot. And I think when you have that wake-up call, or you get in the real world as I was, you realise how good this is."

Thrust into the demanding rigours of professional sport while in his teens, Rafiq experienced a chastising county debut. Brought along to see what life with the first team was like for a T20 clash against Nottinghamshire in 2008, a 17-year-old Rafiq was propelled into the starting line-up after Yorkshire were shown a track expected to turn. Following completion of the fixture, it came to light that Rafiq was ineligible to play due to registration complications, something he had no control over, and Yorkshire were booted out of the competition. The experience did little to deter him though, quickly overcoming the early set-back in his determined fashion.

Marked out as possessing leadership potential, he would go on to skipper the county's T20 side, becoming the first player of Asian origin to do so. By that point Rafiq had also been mentioned as a future international. He was already working his way through the England junior ranks, captaining the likes of Yorkshire team-mate Joe Root in the process. But was it too much too young?

"If you're being brutally honest, I think it was more than that," he says. "I think it was that I played a lot of high-level cricket. I was in a high-level environment from the age of 14, I was involved in the ECB skills set with people who were playing international cricket, Test cricket at times. What ends up happening is you just go through the motions, you don't find that you're looking to improve. You don't know what is going on in your game. And before you know it, that can spiral and become an issue. That's effectively what ended up happening.

"So it's about finding a balance - working to improve but appreciating the game and what challenges it brings and enjoying that. And smiling through it. You're not going be on the top of your game every day, that's not going to happen. So you have to find a way. I think mentally I've become a lot better."

That resilience will be required this summer if Yorkshire are to reclaim the County Championship crown. After missing out on a hat-trick of consecutive titles on the final day of last season, the county are preparing for this summer with renewed vigour. Rafiq watched from afar as the club twice won Division One silverware under Jason Gillespie's tutelage, but he is confident Yorkshire will triumph in 2017 with Gillespie's successor, Gale, at the helm.

"Dizzy's strength was how he managed everyone. He gave you a lot of belief to go out there and play. Gale has a pretty strong demeanor about him, but his hands-on coaching as well as the management side means you've got two in one. Everyone has their own strengths, but I'm sure he'll be as successful at coaching as he was captain. It shouldn't be forgotten that he has the highest score for Yorkshire and has done a hell of a lot for the club. He deserves a massive amount of credit."

For now, Rafiq is concentrating on maximising a full winter's training. He's shed over 12kg of timber - equivalent to nine of the bats wielded by Chris Gayle - and is feeling much better for it. With the extra strength comes the ability to rip the ball that much harder. Yet his focus is very much on the collective rather than the individual these days.

"In general I keep my cricket very simple now. I just want to try and enjoy every day. I know that sounds like a cliché but it's not for me. My mindset is that I try to put an emphasis on how I can help the team, and for my own performances I think that's really helped me have a wider perspective and a more balanced view of the game. When you concentrate on your own performance every day it can become a very lonely place. So I just think about the team. You're probably going to have more bad days than good days, so as long as the team is doing okay then I must be doing my job okay."

Rafiq grins once more, gazing down at the ongoing practice net below, eager to be back among the team again. "The coaches and players, I can't thank them enough," he says. "When I signed my contract a couple of weeks after getting back involved, Froggy [Martyn Moxon, director of cricket] said it was like I'd never been away. That's a credit to how the staff and the players made me feel. Every day I can't wait to get out of bed and play cricket now."