Belgium: Back on track and aiming high

Tom Grunshaw speaks with Belgium men's coach Corey Rutgers about the Red Tigers' plans, which include getting themselves into the World Cup Leagues

Belgium went unbeaten to win the tri-series againt Czech Republic and hosts Luxembourg

Cricket has a long history in Belgium. The first recorded match in the lowland nation was played in 1815 during the Napoleonic wars. Some historians believe the game dates back further, that cricket may have originated in Belgium, not England, in the 16th century.

Somewhere along the line, Belgian cricket lost its way. Despite the long history, cricket has never gained significant traction in Belgium. Since joining the ICC in 1991, the national team, colloquially known as the ‘Red Tigers’, have had only one appearance at a global level: World Cricket League Division 8 in 2012.

Big Amibitions

New head coach Corey Rutgers wants to set that straight. Since taking on the role in August 2019, the Australian has set lofty goals for his side. Top of the pile is returning to the 50 Over ladder of international, now in the guise of the Cricket World Cup Challenge League. To do this, the national team needs to get itself to around 36th on the T20I rankings. At the start of the year, Belgium sat 63rd

Speaking to Emerging Cricket, Rutgers is determined to get their ranking back up and access the Challenge League Qualifier. “50 over is something every nation aspires to. We would love to get our 50 over cricket back, so we need to get our rankings up. Our next big goals are in the next two years to play a lot of T20s to get ourselves in the region of 32 to 36 in the world [rankings]”.

As well as coaching Belgium, Rutgers (centre-right) is fielding coach for Islamabad United in the Pakistan Super League and player-coach at VOC Rotterdam (via Corey Rutgers, twitter)

A plan was put into place in the early stages of 2020. The national team was due to hold a 10-day training camp in Spain, before a raft of home internationals including visits from Austria, Romania and Luxembourg. On top of this, Belgium were selected to host Group C of the European T20 World Cup Qualifiers. These fixtures would have provided plenty of opportunities to win and move up the rankings table.

Plans on pause

Or that would have been the plan. When COVID-19 first hit Europe, Belgium was one of the first countries to feel its full force. This left the national team without fixtures, and with coach Rutgers over the border in the Netherlands.

Speaking about the impacts, Rutgers said “The pandemic brought a lot of different tests, and living across the border with the border closures made things difficult. Thank God for technology, we kept in touch via Zoom. We’d have our 18-man squad on with the general manager and myself, and we’d have little chats and make sure we looked after the players wellbeing and their health”.

Beglium players at training with coach Corey Rutgers (via Cricket Belgium)

The Islamabad United fielding coach was also keen for the players to keep fit. “I hired a health and fitness coach, David Mullett. So, we put them on home fitness programmes to make sure they had kept the level that they had achieved over the winter and to give them something to focus on.”

Despite facing a strong initial wave from the pandemic, cases were quickly brought under control. The club season resumed in June with a full T20 competition scheduled. Local spikes have brought minor disruption, including the postponement of some games. The national team were temporarily unable to acces their prefered training facilities in Antwerp due to a spike.

Coming back stronger

With the worst of the pandemic seemingly behind them, Rutgers and the BCF have been working hard to revive the 10-to-12 fixtures they would have played earlier in the summer. Belgium have just returned from Luxembourg, where they played Czech Republic and the hosts. Belgium’s first games under Rutgers’ leadership, the ‘Red Tigers’ were dominant winning all four games. Testament, then, to the professionalism the coach has instilled in his side, and the belief he has in them.

4 wins against higher ranked opposition was the shot in the arm Belgium needed. The ‘Red Tigers’ leaped up 17 places to 46th, now only 10 places shy of the 50 over cutoff.

Speaking after the games, Rutgers told Emerging Cricket “We’ve worked really hard on the guys fitness, fielding, bowling tactics and fielding tactics. We dominated with the ball and in the field. We looked like a professional outfit and that’s exactly what I was hoping for. We’re on track to reach out lofty goals, and that was the first step. If we can keep these guys [the squad] together, we can be one of the best teams in Europe behind Netherlands, Scotland and Ireland”

Negotiations are also underway which would see Belgium host France, and travel to Czech Republic for the Central European Cup, providing the volume of competitive cricket required to make a further move up the rankings.

Despite all the uncertainty that has gone before, one thing has remained certain. Belgium’s ‘Red Tigers’ are ambitious, they are determined, and they are back on track to move up to the next level.

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