THERE were times when Yorkshire batsman Joe Sayers feared he might never play again.
Sayers contracted Post Viral Fatigue Syndrome last summer and wondered whether he would be able to resume his cricketing career.
But after battling back this season in courageous style, Sayers will this week captain Yorkshire for the first time in County Championship cricket.
It caps an emotional journey for the 27-year-old opening batsman, who takes charge against Warwickshire at Edgbaston in the absence of injured club captain Andrew Gale and South African batsman Jacques Rudolph, who has returned home briefly to attend a training camp.
Ever since he emerged on the first-class scene in 2002, Sayers has been identified as captaincy material.
The dreaded tag “Future England Captain” was foisted on his shoulders in recognition not only of burgeoning ability but leadership potential.
Sayers might not realise the ultimate ambition of captaining his country.
But the next-best prize – leading Yorkshire – means a great deal to a man who is a splendid ambassador for the club and his profession.
“It’s been a long-standing ambition of mine to captain the county team,” said Sayers, who will be looking to steer Yorkshire clear of the relegation zone with victory this week.
“In a way, the next fortnight is a celebration of how far I’ve come in the past year on a personal level.
“It’s a terrific honour to lead the team and I’m looking forward to it immensely.
“Despite the difficulties of the last year and the illness I’ve been through, I think I’ve come back and played a decent role in all forms of the game, and I’m quite proud of that.”
Sayers warmed up for this week’s challenge by taking the reins for Sunday’s CB40 match against Worcestershire.
He led the side to a six-wicket victory in a spirited response to last week’s Championship defeat against Warwickshire at Headingley.
“Some honest words were spoken after that Warwickshire game,” admitted Sayers.
“We reflected on what was a sub-standard performance, and I thought Sunday’s reaction was very encouraging.
“There was a good vibe in the dressing room and we’ve set out our stall to have a real good last fortnight of the season.
“It’s hopefully set us up for a good week at Edgbaston.”
Although they were well beaten last week, Yorkshire believe they are capable of much better in the quick-fire return.
Yorkshire triumphed at Edgbaston last year – winning by four wickets in the opening match of the season – and are still confident they can preserve their First Division status.
But it will not be easy.
With two games to go, they are one place and two points adrift of safety, while Worcestershire and Hampshire – their closest rivals - each have a match in hand.
“It’s still all to play for,” stressed Sayers.
“Any side can beat any other side in Division One.
“It’s been a difficult year for the team – there’s no getting away from that – but we still feel we’ve got a genuinely good chance of staying up.
“A win can totally transform the table, and that’s what we’ll be aiming for at Edgbaston.”
Sayers believes the most important aspect of his role as temporary captain is to support and encourage the players.
Yorkshire have a young team, the sort that can gain confidence quickly and lose it just as rapidly.
“I think one of the most important things in leadership, particularly in a pressurised situation such as this, is to get the players feeling relaxed and having faith in their abilities so they can go out there and perform to their best,” added Sayers.
“My style of leadership will basically be to try to encourage that as much as possible.
“I think the lads in general have communicated well after the Warwickshire defeat and we’ve tried to draw a line under that result.
“This week brings a new game and a new start as far as we’re concerned.”
Whatever happens during the closing days of a challenging campaign, Sayers is determined to be part of a successful Yorkshire side in future years.
“It has been a bit frustrating on a personal level this year,” admitted Sayers, who has played in eight of the team’s 14 Championship games and 13 of a possible 28 one-day fixtures.
“I feel I’ve been in pretty good touch, but, despite the difficulties of being in-and-out of the side, my performances have been good and I think I’ve improved as the year has gone on.
“Yorkshire is a great place to play cricket and I still hold the ambition to be as successful as possible here and win trophies as a Yorkshire player.
“I’m fully committed to being a Yorkshire cricketer and I want very much to be part of a Yorkshire squad that can dominate in all forms of the game.”