With the LV= County Championship set to get underway at the start of April, most cricketers will now be looking to put the final touches to their pre-season preparations.
Bowlers will be making sure their run-ups are as smooth as possible, and batsmen ensuring their technique is completely rock solid. For one former Notts favourite, however, it is a rather different story.
Bilal Shafayat has been without a county since leaving Hampshire in 2013, but the former England Lions run-getter believes he still has a lot to offer to any outfit willing to take a chance on the former England U19 captain.
"All I ask is for an opportunity from an English county to back an English player.”
“I’m not looking for any favours but all I say is that I’m 29, I’m nearly at the best part of my career, all I ask is for an opportunity from an English county to back an English player,” said the man who was once described by the Daily Telegraph as ‘the most naturally talented English batsman since David Gower’.
Shafayat made history when he made his Outlaws debut at the age of just 16 in 2001 and, after a two-year hiatus with Northants from 2005 to 2007, had a second spell with his home county before being released in 2010.
But the player, who used to be known as ‘Billy Sapphire’ at Trent Bridge because he was such a gem of a cricketer, has no regrets when looking back on his career.
“It’s been an experience and a journey I couldn’t have planned myself – getting released by Notts – but it’s been brilliant since then for my individual game,” said Shafayat.
“Obviously career-wise I’ve missed out on stable first-class cricket for a couple of years but I’d rather do that and be the kind of cricketer I’ve always wanted to be, sort myself and my game out.
"Mick Newell has attracted a lot of young talented cricketers who are pushing for international honours.”
“In the last year I had at Notts there were some technical flaws to my game and firstly I wasn’t able to identify them and no-one was really able to work it out and help me.
“I don’t think that if I was in a county contract I would have been able to identify these flaws and work on them, even though I had the facilities and support at Notts.
“Sometimes it’s got to be a case of ‘right I’m on my own and I’ve got to work it out by myself now’ and I think I’m now becoming a finished product.”
And Shafayat says he is in a better place mentally now, despite being without a county contract.
“I’m not too desperate for anything. I’ve had a nice life without a county contract and it was a very young and immature Bilal Shafayat when I finished at Notts.
“I just feel as if I’ve been able to mature – the journey’s been invaluable for me.”
And part of that journey has taken Shafayat overseas.
He has had contracts in Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and more recently Pakistan, where he has played three seasons for Habib Bank, and Shafayat’s attempts at having a clear mind while at the crease have been paying off.
“It’s always testing and it’s a little difficult out there in comparison to England," he said.
“There are very skilful fast bowlers out there – the organisation and the circumstances you play under are a little bit tougher so the pressure is always on you and it relates to county cricket very closely.
“A lot of the guys out there who have seen me come over for a couple of years were very pleasantly surprised that my game has improved over the last couple of years and I’ve played so instinctively, freely and some batsmen have said ‘we wish we could play that free.’
“It’s quite easy to get caught up in the pressures of wanting to keep scoring and to perform and I think the last couple of years that I was in Notts I really got caught up in that and wasn’t able to just release the shackles and play my own game, back my own game and be very mature about it.
“I think that’s what I’ve been able to do being without a county contract – I’ve been able to find my own instinctive game.”
This maturity that Shafayat talks about also extends to his decision off the pitch, where he has had difficult choices to make of late – turning down short-term contracts at both Sussex and Warwickshire last season.
“I wanted to back myself to wait for a deal that offers me and my family stability – I’m 29, I don’t really see myself being a bits and bobs contract holder now.
“It’s a case of one last go somewhere and I’d rather take that time away like I have done and really continue to work on my own game.”
Despite being released by Notts back in 2010, Shafayat appears to hold no grudges against his home county. In fact, quite the opposite is true as he reminisces about some of his favourite Trent Bridge moments.
“My debut itself is a great memory of mine," he said.
“I was 16 years old, I was able to make some history and score a few runs – it was a dream come true.
“My family, my youth coach and everyone who had brought me up from the second eleven into the first team were all there to see it.
“I was playing in a great side with Usman Afzaal, Kevin Pietersen, Stuart MacGill and Greg Blewett who was my idol at the time.”
And what does he think of his former county’s squad ahead of the upcoming season?
“This is a star-studded Notts team with some high quality batsmen and bowlers and I don’t expect anything less because Mick Newell has attracted a lot of young talented cricketers who are pushing for international honours.”
Shafayat also said the Outlaws had done very well in signing two Australians for the 2014 season, Ashes winner Peter Siddle and experienced opening batsman Phil Jaques.
“Peter Siddle is a quality signing, a quality bowler, and in these conditions especially he’ll do really well,” he said.
“It shows the standard of cricket at Notts that we’ve also got players like Ajmal Shazhad and Harry Gurney – I always found him difficult to face when he was at Leicester. He used to hit the bat really hard.
“He’s shown over the last season or two at Trent Bridge what a quality bowler he is.”
And if the chance came for a third spell with the county where it all started came up?
“That would be a dream for me to take that opportunity on if it came, who’s to say, anything can happen in this career it’s quite freaky.
“What’s important is for me to stay ready for any challenge that comes up.
“It’s been a lovely journey and learning experience so far.”
Well Bilal, your journey might not be over just yet.