Azeem Rafiq admits the loss of Mitchell Starc and David Miller will be a “big blow” to Yorkshire Vikings’ Friends Life t20 ambitions this season.
Australia paceman Starc and South Africa batsman Miller showed their international class last term, with match-winning performances that helped the White Rose qualify for their maiden finals day.
Starc was the leading wicket-taker in the competition with 21 scalps, but has since become integral to Australia and has been prevented from returning to Leeds this summer due to Champions Trophy and Ashes commitments.
Miller - who struck 390 middle-order runs, including an unbeaten 72 off 46 balls in the 2012 final defeat to Hampshire Royals - earlier this month opted to rest ahead of international action rather than represent Yorkshire in this year’s FLt20.
Rafiq recognises the loss of the key pair could be detrimental to the Vikings’ chances of emulating their fine form last term. However, he sees Gary Ballance, recently named in England’s Twenty20 squad, as someone who can prosper in this summer’s competition.
“I think it is a big blow, if I am perfectly honest,” Rafiq exclusively told ecb.co.uk's Callum Dent before Miller’s absence was confirmed.
“Starc was our leading wicket-taker and Miller was our leading run-scorer and, if we don’t have any of them, some of the other lads are going to have to put their hands up and perform. I see Gary Ballance as a big player for us in Twenty20.”
Yorkshire first team coach Jason Gillespie agrees with Rafiq about the loss of Miller and Starc, and the value of Ballance, but believes the likes of winter signings Jack Brooks and Liam Plunkett can overcome the absence of an overseas player with Phil Jaques injured.
"David and Mitch were great competitors for us last season and they will be certainly missed,” Gillespie said. “They have flourished since their time with us, which is great to see.
“We have an influx of new players with Jack and Liam new to us in this format and they will compensate the loss of Mitchell in the bowling department.
“The squad is young but we have great quality. Just look at Gary Ballance, who I believe is one of the most devastating batsmen in the game. He can be massive for us this year. I have great faith in the squad and we will be a match for any side in our group."
Yorkshire briefly welcome back Jonny Bairstow from England duty for their FLt20 opener with Derbyshire Falcons at Headingley tomorrow evening before he joins the squad to face Essex in an Ashes warm-up game.
Brooks is available after a thumb injury and Rafiq has been playing regular second XI cricket this month, having recovered from a knee problem sustained in April.
"Brooks has been given the all-clear on his thumb injury and is available to play in all forms of the game; this gives us a massive boost,” Gillespie added.
"Rafiq has played a number of T20 games in the last fortnight with the seconds and has come through with no problems. He was a massive part of our T20 campaign last year, when he led the side in a number of games. To have him back is brilliant. He is a natural competitor and he will bring a lot to the team.
"We still have a number injury worries. Phil Jaques is still recovering from a side strain and will miss, at least the opening two matches. Steve Patterson has broken his toe and will likely return for the championship match against Derbyshire next month, and Moin Ashraf has commenced a fitness regime with our support staff.
"It is all about managing workload and I feel we are in a good place at present with the personnel we have available for T20."
Yorkshire’s reward for reaching last year’s FLt20 final at Cardiff was a place in the Champions League in South Africa.
They exceeded all expectations by breezing through qualifying thanks to victories over Uva Next and Trinidad & Tobago respectively, but came up short in Group B against world-class opposition such as Mumbai Indians and Sydney Sixers.
Despite losing all four fixtures, Rafiq believes the experience of playing against the world’s best will stand the squad in good stead for the future.
“It was the best experience of my life, rubbing shoulders with some of the best players in the world,” he said. “It was good for the club to get out there and be involved in a global event. A lot of people learned a lot from it.”
Rafiq has ambitions to become Yorkshire captain again in the future.
The bowling all-rounder showcased his leadership credentials in the FLt20 last season, deputising in the absence of the injured Andrew Gale.
The 22-year-old, a former England Under-15 and -19 skipper, showed maturity beyond his years in a number of high-pressure matches and, after enjoying the role, would be open to taking over the reins again.
“I absolutely loved it, yes. Obviously ‘Galey’ is still the captain but, if I get the chance in the future, I will snap their hands off,” he added.