In the first men's T20I series since the Coronavirus pandemic brought international cricket to a halt earlier this year, Belgium completed a clean sweep of their four matches against the Czech Republic and Luxembourg over the weekend to claim the inaugural Luxembourg T20I trophy, and bolster their position on the rankings table while the hosts narrowly pipped the Czechs to second place on the final table.
As the European cricket cautiously comes out of lockdown (Germany having cancelled a planned tour to the Netherlands last week), the series opener between Luxembourg and Czechia on Saturday proved to be the first official T20I to go ahead since the pandemic forced the international game in to hibernation, a few hours ahead of the night match between England and Pakistan that would take place that evening.
The hectic schedule crammed all six matches into just three days, with Belgium only arriving on Saturday to play all four of their matches in the space of under 30 hours - a grueling task even by Associate standards. The packed fixture did not seem to phase the Belgians however and allowed skipper Shaheryar Butt to become the first player to hit a T20I fifty and century on the same day, a feat which brought the series a degree of wider attention.
The previous day had seen the hosts and the Czechs share honours in the first two matches. Luxembourg opened their account with a convincing win in the rain-abbreviated series opener. Home skipper and eventual runner-up in the run aggregates, Joost Mees, top-scored with 40 off 24 as his side posted a solid 164-7 in the first innings before Ankush Nanda and Marcus Cope took three wickets apiece in the Czech reply, the visitors sliding from 55-1 to 89-9 before the weather put a stop to proceedings.
The Czech Republic struck back in the afternoon game, however, with Kushalkumar Mendon breaking a half-century stand between Luxembourg openers James Barker and Scott Brown, and finishing pick of the bowlers with 3-20 from his 4 overs as the hosts collapsed to 112 all out. Opener Honey Gori, who would be the only Czech bat to break three figures in the run aggregates over the series, hit a brisk 35 off 21 from the top of the order to put the visitors in control, and though he would fall in the 5th over the hosts would never quite get back in the game, the Czechs closing out the win with five wickets and six balls to spare.
Neither side would win another game however, as it was immediately clear when the Belgians arrived that their lowly ranking (they stood at 63rd in the ICC T20I rankings ahead of the series) belied the fact that Butt's side were clearly a cut above the competition. Butt himself would lead the way, striking an unbeaten 81 off 45 in their first match against Luxembourg to see his side recover from a slow start to post 165-8. Right-arm quick Ashiqullah Said, (who plays his cricket with the European Championship-winning VOC side in the Netherlands) struck twice in the powerplay to remove both Luxembourg openers for single figures while Khalid Ahmadi had the dangerous Mees caught behind for 16, and despite a middle-order fightback led by Tony Whiteman, the hosts couldn't find the requisite acceleration, finishing eight-down and 38 runs short.
The Czechs would fare little better in the day's second game, though they initially looked to have the upper hand as two wickets and a run-out from Gori saw Belgium slide to 41-4 after 8 overs, but Butt's arrival at the crease would transform the game. His brutal, unbeaten 125 off 50 featured 11 fours and 9 sixes and is the first T20I century ever struck by a batsman batting at six or lower. As a result of Butt's onslaught, the Czechs would find themselves facing a target of 198 when they set out in reply. Despite a defiant 60 off 36 from number four Sudesh Wickramsekara, they would slide to a 46-run defeat. Ashiqullah, the stand-out with the ball, returned of 3-15 from his four.
Belgian head coach Corey Rutgers told Cricbuzz after the series, "Sherry had a freak first day, he just couldn't stop middling it, and it's been great that he's brought us some attention from the wider cricket world. But it's been a real team effort over the series and on Sunday the boys showed we're not a one-man show."
In their second match against the Czechs, it would be Wahidullah Usmani who led the counter-attack after Belgium had lost both openers for a duck and Butt was dismissed for the first time in the series (run out by Naveed Ahmed for 2 runs). Usmani's 72 off 50 provided the backbone to an eventual total of 161-6, which would prove well beyond the Czech batsmen. Ashiqullah and new-ball partner Murid Ekrami gave up just 18 runs between them from eight overs and claimed a wicket apiece, while a searing bouncer from Said forced Czech skipper Ed Knowles out of the game, having broken a finger in the act of fending the ball away. The chase was likewise broken, the remaining Czech batsmen struggling to a total of just 74-7 by the close.
The Belgians would complete their perfect run in the final match against Luxembourg, posting 184-8 with Saber Zakhil hitting 44 off 16 from number 7, which would prove well beyond the reach of their hosts. With support from Vikram Vijh, home captain Joost Mees would again steady things after the early loss of both openers, but though his unbeaten 67 was enough to see his side finish ahead of the Czechs on net run rate, Belgium's discipline in the field would ensure the asking rate would keep climbing throughout the chase, the home side eventually coming up 50 runs short of the target.
Belgium's perfect run in the tourney sees them leapfrog both their opponents in the ICC T20I Rankings, and constitutes a significant step forward in their longer-term ambitions in both the T20 and 50-over formats. Since the effective abolition of regional 50-over tournaments, the ICC T20 rankings are the only route that lower-ranked Associates have to qualify for the lowest tier of ICC 50-over competitions - the Cricket World Cup Challenge League.
As Rutgers explained after the series; "We had a two-year plan, aiming to break into the top 32 of the T20I rankings, and put a lot of work putting together a schedule that would give us a shot at that. Corona has complicated things considerably, but this weekend has helped a lot. We were always looking to take four wins from four, and the boys got it done. I think our ranking has jumped from 63 to 46, and rankings really mean something for us as without regional 50-over qualifiers that's the only way to get onto the 50-over ladder."
"Huge credit to Luxembourg for getting these games organized. There's been so much cancelled even in the last few weeks with Germany calling off their tours, been a privilege to be a part of the first T20I series since the pandemic hit"
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