Former Yorkshire captain Azeem Rafiq has made the 'tough decision' to leave hometown club Barnsley CC as he looks to establish his cricket academy in South Yorkshire and also restart his professional career.
The 24-year-old off-spinner came through the ranks at Shaw Lane after moving to Barnsley from Pakistan aged seven. He went on to captain both Yorkshire's Twenty20 side and England under 19s before being released by the Headingley club last year after more than a decade. He spent last season back at Barnsley CC, leading them to the Yorkshire League Twenty20 Cup as captain, but will not be returning next year.
"It was a tough decision to leave Barnsley," said Rafiq, who is currently coaching in Dubai and getting married in Pakistan next month.
"I spent a lot of my life there and it was the only club I ever played for. The highlight was winning the Yorkshire League aged 14. A lot of people there have been big influences on my life like Pete Murray in the junior section and Dave Clayton who looked after me and my family from when we first came to England. Dave calls me his third son and I feel like that.
"It feels like the time is right to leave. I have been offered coaching opportunities with my academy which I probably wouldn't get at Barnsley because they already have people in those positions. "I wish the club all the best under new captain Jon Trower."
Rafiq says he is 'looking forward to meeting Barnsley on the pitch' as he is likely to move to one of their South Yorkshire rivals. He also hopes to be signed up by a professional club while working on his academy.
"The aim is to get back into professional cricket. I am in dialogue with quite a few clubs. Some of them are coming out to Dubai during the winter then hopefully I will have trials when I get back to England in March or April. It looks promising at the moment.
"I just need to make sure I am at my best and ready to go. It's not been the best couple of years but I am just taking it one step at a time and really enjoying it. My dream has always been to play for England. At times that has not seemed achievable but I am not one to give up. I am not going to put myself under the pressure that I used to. It's not the be all and end all of my life anymore."
Azeem is working for a company called Cricket CSE in Dubai. He said: "It's a great experience out here. "I am doing a lot of coaching but also working two or three hours a day on my own game. It's important to be able to train outside during the winter.
"The England Lions are out here this winter as well so I have been training with them and working with their coaches which has been great."
CSE are helping Azeem set up his own academy when he returns to England. It is going to be based in South Yorkshire but the venue is yet to be confirmed.
Rafiq said: "I want it to be a very professional academy with players brought in by invitation only. They will get the opportunity to work with people within or just outside the professional game as well as coaches from overseas. It will mirror a professional club and there will be opportunities for overseas tours."