Chris Waters: Return of Azeem Rafiq key to Yorkshire reversing T20 fortunes
YORKSHIRE take on Glamorgan in Cardiff on Thursday in the quarter-finals of the T20 Blast.
Win or lose, captain Alex Lees and his players deserve great credit for reaching the last eight.
To say that Yorkshire looked dead and buried halfway through the group stage is an understatement.
One win from seven games had left them bottom of the table, after which they won six of their last seven matches to finish third.
Lees attributed the transformation to the players discovering a sense of belief.
Wins breed confidence, and once Yorkshire got on a roll, there seemed no stopping them in their march to the knockout stages. So stark was the turnaround, Yorkshire even came within five runs of securing a home quarter-final.
Had they restricted Northants to 158 instead of 163 in their final group game at Wantage Road, Yorkshire would have pipped them into second place on net run-rate.
To these eyes, Yorkshire’s T20 turnaround really kicked into life when they won the second of three successive tight matches in early July.
Having beaten Lancashire by five runs on the first day of the month, Yorkshire defeated Birmingham by two runs the following week in amazing style.
Chasing 157, Birmingham were apparently cruising at 141-4 with 13 balls left. However, they lost six for 13 to somehow snatch defeat from the jaws of victory as Yorkshire pulled it out of the bag.
Lees’s team moved on to Derby, where they could also have lost before once again showing their character.
Chasing 167, Derbyshire needed 25 from the last three overs with six wickets left before finishing on 165-8, Yorkshire prevailing by a single run.
In addition to showing a priceless ability to win close matches, a trait invariably possessed by the best one-day sides, Yorkshire’s revival was a true team effort.
Everyone chipped in to some degree. Jack Leaning has come to the fore and is the club’s leading run-scorer with 243 at 30.37, the young right-hander having grown in stature as the tournament has progressed and really developed in terms of clean striking.
Adam Lyth and Lees have also passed the 200-run mark, along with the departed Kane Williamson, while the consistently excellent Tim Bresnan is the leading wicket-taker with 18 at 17.27.
Yorkshire’s fielding and catching have also been impressive. Players appear to have a better understanding of their individuals roles, whereas that clarity was perhaps lacking a touch in the earlier stages as Yorkshire searched to find the right formula.
Although it has been a true team effort to get through to the quarters, one player whose contribution should not go unnoticed is that of Azeem Rafiq. It is surely no coincidence that Rafiq’s return to the club – after two years out of the professional game – coincided with that sharp rise in form, with the off-spinner Yorkshire’s second-highest wicket-taker in the competition with 12 at 19.16.
Rafiq, who captained Yorkshire in T20 in 2012, has done particularly well to resurrect his career and he not only brings quality with the ball, but he also possesses infectious enthusiasm.
Yorkshire look a better one-day team with him in it, and they have given themselves every chance now of going all the way.