Spectator sport

As our World Cup hopes grow, let’s not fret about the brilliant Belgians

16 June 2018

9:00 AM

16 June 2018

9:00 AM

Here’s a question: name some famous Belgians. Well there’s Kevin De Bruyne, Vincent Kompany, and Eden Hazard. And if that’s not enough, there’s Romelu Lukaku and Dries Mertens; not forgetting Toby Alderweireld and Thomas Vermaelen. Or Mousa Dembele, Thibaut Courtois, and Marouane Fellaini. If all goes well England will still be in with a chance of making the last 16 of the World Cup when they meet the mighty Belgians — not a line you see very often — in their final group match in exactly two weeks’ time.

England have, arguably, only one star of similar status: Harry Kane. But I’m less convinced than I was a few weeks ago that England are bound to lose this match in Kaliningrad. The Belgians are brilliant as individuals, but we don’t know how they will work as a team. Will they dissolve into internal bickering like the French in South Africa? And the World Cup can be harsh on strong-on-paper teams that are trying to break through — think of the luckless Dutch, or Spain’s many failures before their 2010 triumph. But it’s not just that: it’s more that misgivings about Gareth Southgate have surrendered to what may prove foolish optimism, but I hope not. This is an England team that seems at ease with itself and the world. Amazing what can be achieved once you’re shot of Wayne Rooney and John Terry.

The French Open final was much tighter than the score suggests. What a great backhand Dominic Thiem has. A Slam will soon be his —but not yet: Rafa Nadal’s game is just brutal. And that is the wonder of his success on clay, a surface that was once the canvas of the tennis artists: the Rosewalls, the Santanas, the Nastases. Nadal has turned it into a killing field.

Impossible for anyone who has ever slurped on a pint of heavy not to enjoy unrated Scotland’s massively deserved victory in the 50-over runfest in Edinburgh while England’s best player was sitting on the sidelines in the TMS commentary team. It’s a great pity Jimmy Anderson wasn’t asked to pull on his size 12s. He couldn’t have performed worse than England’s toothless pace attack. Jimmy has become a skilled commentator: dispassionate, expert and not pumping an agenda. He is also very funny, as anyone who has listened to Greg James’s delightful cricket podcast, Tailenders, will know. Jimmy would make you laugh reading out the index from Jane’s Fighting Ships.

Still on English cricket, here’s a thought for Trevor Bayliss. Now that Jos Buttler is the success that so many of us knew he could be all along, why not make him captain and solve a heap of problems? Joe Root is clearly uncomfortable as skipper and his batting seems to have dipped several gears. Give the lad a break and let Jos do what he was always cut out for. And don’t send that other young star, Dom Bess, back to the Quantocks any time soon. It’s my feeling that, like Steve Smith, he could morph from being a bowling all-rounder to a very good batsman who bowls.

No more international cricket for the great A.B. de Villiers, more’s the pity. Was there ever a better all-round sportsman? He was shortlisted for South Africa’s junior hockey and football teams, captain of his country’s rugby juniors and also holds six school swimming records and the fastest 100 metres time in junior athletics. He was U19 national badminton champion, and a member of SA’s junior Davis Cup tennis team. He holds the record for the world’s fastest one-day 50, 100 and 150. He scored 47 international centuries and 109 50s. And wouldn’t you know it, his golf handicap is scratch. Beat that, someone.

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