Express & Star

Andy Richardson: One last mission in a sizzling summer of sporting triumphs

Let’s talk sport. On Friday, England will line up against South Africa at The Oval. It’ll be the third and final Test Match of the series and with the contest evenly poised at 1-1, it’s a winner-takes-all-match. England are marginal favourites, though it could go either way.

It’s been a sizzling summer for sport – and as England line-up at The Oval, there’s one last mission to accomplish

It’s been a dreamy summer for fans. The team, for so long also-rans whose inconsistency was their only consistent trait, have swept away all before them. The world’s two best sides, New Zealand and India, were dispatched in a flurry of big-hitting, record-breaking, wicket-taking thrills.

Newly empowered by real-life hero Ben Stokes, they played with a freedom and elan that had been conspicuous only by its absence in the years before. Confident, willing to take risks and no longer cowed by fear, their willingness to front up and take the brave option paid dividends.

And as England head into the final match against South Africa, this has been a summer that will deserve the sobriquet ‘vintage’. Win, lose or draw – and, let’s face it, a draw’s unlikely unless the heavens open and wash out the first match of the season – our national team have inspired fans young and old.

Stokes has been at the helm, a real-life hero and England’s best all-rounder since Ian Botham. A bone fide match winner, able to change a game at will, he’s led by example in getting the best out of a team that at other times has stuttered.

Timidity has turned to bravery, dourness has turned to excitement. Stokes has proved an alchemist, able to transmute base metal to gold.

The nation’s cricketers haven’t been the only ones to cover themselves with glory through a vintage summer of sport.

The English Women’s Football Team, managed brilliantly by Sarina Wiegman, captained by Leah Williams and featuring such unlikely icons as Beth Mead, Lucy Bronze, Ellen White and the imperious Jill Scott, has been on top of the world.

A game that had been sidelined for too long as girls were told they weren’t allowed to play, or as naysayers looked down upon their iteration of a sport once dominated by men, came of age. The dysfunctional arguments of yore were confounded one by one as such newbie superstars as Alessia Russo showed outrageous levels of skill.

Most importantly, they blew open the doors to a new generation of youngsters. Girls who once grew up imagining that football was for boys have been newly empowered.

Now all we need is a Government that normalises equal opportunity as girls step up and play with joy in their hearts. And, in the inevitable absence of that, the girls will do it anyway. There’s been such a groundswell of opinion during a heady, EURO 2022-winning summer, that any fool who tries to stand in their way will be swept aside.

The brilliant Usain Bolt was a once-in-a-generation sprinter who captivated the world with unbeatable runs in the 100m and 200m. Since his retirement, athletics has found itself without a blue riband star who can cut through to the masses.

And yet locally, the brilliant Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games brought the region together in a feast of sport, culture and feel-good events.

Played out in stadia across the region, it shone a global spotlight on Brummigem and the Black Country, allowing us to put on a memorable display. The Aussies beat us, of course, they usually do, though England’s second place in the medal table, two medals – though 10 golds – behind our Antipodean friends was a more-than creditable effort. Breaking the previous best medal tally of 174, set in Glasgow 2014, England enjoyed their most successful Commonwealth Games ever.

More than that, however, the host nation and the many workers and volunteers who staffed the event brought a smile to all comers.

Swimmer Tom Dean was the breakout star, leaving Birmingham with the most medals in the bag for England, with six silvers and one gold.Jake Jarman’s astonishing Games in Gymnastics saw him collect four gold medals while Spendolini-Sirieix was another of the host nation’s breakout stars with two golds and one silver.

It’s been a sizzling summer for sport – and as England line-up at The Oval, there’s one last mission to accomplish.

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