MARTYN MOXON is predicting big things from Azeem Rafiq this summer as the Yorkshire off-spinner looks to maintain his comeback after drifting out of the professional game.
Rafiq rejoined the club last year after two years away from county cricket caused by a loss of form and confidence.
The 26-year-old worked his way back through league cricket and impressed enough to be asked by Yorkshire to play for their second team early last summer.
He was awarded a contract until the end of the season and signed a one-year extension in September.
Director of cricket Moxon said: “Azeem is fit and raring to go.
“He needed to get fitter again and lose some weight, and he’s done that.
“His alignment with his bowling is much better and will enable him to spin the ball more.
“He gives us options, and what he’s targeting is getting back to what he was in 2012, which was first-choice spinner.”
Rafiq played a big part that year in Yorkshire’s march to T20 Finals Day.
He took 11 wickets and even captained the team in the absence of then club captain Andrew Gale.
Last year, Rafiq scored 242 runs and took 24 wickets in 23 first team matches in all competitions.
His return was capped – quite literally – when he was awarded his county cap towards the end of the campaign.
“Azeem has done very well since he returned to the club,” added Moxon.
“He’s recently been out to Hong Kong (playing for Galaxy Gladiators Lantau in the Hong Kong T20 Blitz) and enjoyed the experience of playing over there.
“It was quite challenging for a spinner as the grounds were quite small.
“But he played with the likes of Kumar Sangakkara, which was really beneficial for him.”
Rafiq scored 40 runs in four T20 Blitz games and captured five wickets.
He was straight into his stride on Yorkshire’s ongoing pre-season tour of Dubai, taking 3-42 in the opening game against Papua New Guinea.
Moxon’s optimism concerning the player was echoed by Yorkshire first team coach Gale, who has been impressed with Rafiq’s recent form.
The spinner is primarily known for his T20 exploits, but he should have a good opportunity to press his County Championship claims this season, with current first-choice spinner Adil Rashid having been made unavailable by England for the opening match ahead of a busy summer of international cricket.
“Azeem’s started where he left off last season,” said Gale.
“He’s spinning the ball more, he’s done a lot of work in the winter on his action and he looks really confident at the minute.
“The Champions Trophy is just around the corner, and you’d imagine that Adil will be part of that.
“So Rafa’s going to be a big part of our plans and he’s more confident now and knows his game inside out.”
Rafiq took two wickets yesterday as Yorkshire won their one-day friendly against Papua New Guinea at the Severns Stadium in Dubai.
But it was another spinner in the form of left-armer Karl Carver who stole the show.
The recently-turned 21-year-old, who has played five first-class games and hopes to challenge Rafiq for a first-team place, returned figures of 5-17 from 17 overs.
Carver initially took three wickets as Papua New Guinea, batting first, were dismissed for 100 inside 35 overs, at which point it was agreed that they could bat on longer.
They eventually closed on 136-13, with Tim Bresnan also taking two wickets.
In a fine all-round bowling display, there was also a wicket apiece for Steve Patterson, Matthew Waite, James Wainman and Jack Leaning.
In reply, with Yorkshire chasing an agreed target of 240 to make it more challenging, they prevailed by three wickets with a little over two overs to spare, Will Rhodes scoring an unbeaten 117.
Yorkshire’s tour ends with one final game today against UAE Blues.
They return to England at the end of the week ahead of the club’s opening first-class match against Leeds-Bradford MCCU at Headingley, starting on Sunday.
Yorkshire begin their County Championship programme against Hampshire at Headingley on Friday week.
Pakistan pace bowler Mohammad Irfan has been banned from all cricket for a year and fined £8,000 after admitting corruption charges during this year’s Pakistan Super League.