Thursday, April 10th, 2014

Richard had been delayed in Australia by work commitments, but had arrived in Lahore the previous night. I was greeted by a knock on my door, and was met by Richard in full beige suit, blasting “You’re The Best” out of his iPhone. He had been reading my diary updates, and had wanted me to be inspired. I was. However, I was also tired, so I fist-bumped him and crashed to sleep.

I jumped out of bed at 8am the next morning, ready to smash down my hotel breakfast curry and marmalade on toast. The waiter at the hotel, Abdul, mocked me when I asked for coffee. This had become a daily ritual, as apparently I drink an unusually high number of cups each morning. But how else was I meant to function? I absorbed his jokes and sipped at my coffee.  The Australian team finished their breakfast and noticed Team India arriving for breakfast as well, already decked out in their sweet aqua blue tracksuits. Note to self – we must also get sweet tracksuits for the next tournament.

Lee had sent around some images via Whatsapp, screenshots of press articles that had been whipped up by the local news outlets after the press conference the previous night. One outlet suggested that we had been “thrashed” by India 3-2. A five set thriller is hardly a “thrashing”. The same source stated that we’d also been “thrashed” by Pakistan, 2-0. I was starting to wonder if they knew what the word “thrash” meant. Also, we’d only lost 1-0. Typical media beat up. A different article stated that “Ralph Peterson said that a warm welcome was accorded to them during their stay at Lahore”. The frequent misspelling of Rolf’s name had become a running joke on this tour, and this was just another one to chuckle about. This was one day after a different article called him “Rafael”, and the hotel breakfast coupon the same day referred to “Rod Petersum”. Couple this with the fact that we had stuffed up his Australia uniforms by failing to pick up an error in the review process – “Peterson” – and he had been having a tough time being acknowledged correctly. On the other hand, this could have been the universe trying to keep him humble, given the amount of press coverage he had fronted in the past few days. We didn’t want him becoming some kind of media whore. Thankfully Lara Bingle was nowhere to be seen.

We were confident that we could reverse our fortunes from the previous day, as we felt that we had played better than India for the majority of our match, but had simply suffered from a late lapse in concentration. Once at the ground, we did our customary intimidation warm up and stretched up. We would have six players today, but we determined that Richard should sit out the first game to get himself accustomed to the speed and bounce of the pitch. Plus, we felt that our chemistry from the previous day would be important in this crunch game. The coin was tossed, and Rolf picked correctly. We picked the side that we preferred, and they received the first serve. We had each put forward a game ball to be considered, and they selected the ball they wished to play with. It was game on.

From the first point we were confused; why were we using this crappy ball? Unlike the hard, solid ball that we had been practicing and playing with for the last three months, this ball was soft and bouncy like a mini beach ball. We couldn’t get a handle on the ball, and we were making countless errors. Lee and Jimmy claimed that they couldn’t get any purchase on it when they were serving. We queried the ball but were told it was a game ball and India had chosen it, so we had to fight on. Instead, we were pummelled 11-4 in the first set.

We tried to regroup and ignore the ball issues in the second set. We concentrated on safer hits and driving the ball long, which resulted in a few more points… however, it still wasn’t enough. We lost that set 11-8 and were down 2-0. On the plus side, on paper, this start seemed to almost be a carbon copy of yesterday’s practice match, one that we had pushed to 5 sets. On the other hand, this one didn’t feel the same – confidence was down.

We dug our in heels and powered forward, scraping out a 15-14 victory in the third set. There was still life in us yet, enough to make it a battle. The fourth set went back and forth once more until we were locked at 12 all. They ecked out the 13th point and it was back to us to serve for the match. A long rally ensured, and due to a solid set by India, their main spiker had a perfect strike lined up at the net. He smashed it over and split the gap, and we were done. There was some assertion that he had hit the net with his smash, but who cares – they had thoroughly out played us when it mattered.

The boys were shattered – they knew that was the best chance to make the final, and we’d blown it. We were told later on that we could have simply switched the ball when it was our time to serve. A handy piece of information to have for future tournaments, but poorly timed information for our fight in this tournament.

Pakistan then took on Nepal, a team we hadn’t yet seen in action. They were a scattered team structure-wise, but one that sported an incredibly strong attacker. Both teams also seemed to be struggling with the raised net – now sitting at regulation height – and it seemed like every second serve was a fault. Pakistan made less errors and prevailed in straight sets. It was then India vs Nepal, and the same issues plagued Nepal once again. They were overrun by a fired-up India, again going down in straight sets.

As we took to the field for our match against Pakistan, my expectations based on our previous days practice match were low – I fully expected them to win, and without much resistance. Lee, however, was confident – “we can take them”. He was right, there was no point being negative, we had to take this game by the throat and throw a spanner in the works.

We came out firing. A day after we couldn’t return a single serve from Pakistan we were returning almost every serve, with interest. They were in disarray as we played the best we had ever played as a team. We took the first set convincingly, 11-8. All bets were off, this game was now ours for the taking.

Pakistan regrouped and came back at us with purpose. Outplayed, we could only manage seven points, going down 11-7. In the third set the main attacker really fired up, slamming repeated sets into the corner and putting us on the back foot. It would appear they’d gotten their mojo back, and the set was theirs – 11-6.

Sensing that we were not quite done yet, we tightened up our backcourt and gave them everything we had in the fourth set. Lee was firing up and throwing down lasers at the feet of the Pakistanis and the rest of the team was holding it together, keeping skill errors to a minimum and moving the ball forward. Before we knew it we’d secured the fourth set 12-10 and were heading in the direction of a fairy-tale victory. Perhaps we’d used up all our energy in that set. We came out in the fifth set confident but weary, and they took advantage.  With little drama, they finished us off 11-6 to take the victory in five sets. It had been a gutsy effort, but it seemed that we had started to perfect the heartbreakingly close loss. I was personally disappointed with my own performance in the game, but the rest of the boys were happy with it… and fair enough too, they’d played a fantastic game. As both Pakistan and India were sitting on 2 wins and 0 losses after the first day, they had been assured a place in the final. We would have to settle for a third place playoff against Nepal.

After the game, we were told that we would be attending a dinner at the National Hockey Stadium, the same location as our press conference the previous day. We all shuffled into the bus and headed back to the hotel, grateful that we would be gifted a shower this time before heading off to the event. We dressed into casual attire and waited. Rolf then informed us that apparently there would be people of serious importance there and that we should in fact wear nice clothing. The blazers came out of the closet and the ties were thrown on. In fairness, we did look pretty darn good in that attire. The trick was to stay away from naked flames, as the blazer was sure to turn into an instant fireball upon the slightest of spark.

When we arrived at the dinner we felt like we’d walked into an awards ceremony. The area that had been a press conference one day earlier was now a glitzy dinner hall, complete with excessively ornate chandelier and hundreds of guests milling around immaculately arranged round dinner tables. It was pretty. We sat at the table set aside for the Australia Fistball Team and chatted amongst ourselves. We noticed that the Lancaster Cricket Team were here again. One of our Pakistani friends handed us a newspaper from that day and we saw that we were all over the photo sections. We were now officially mini celebrities. Rolf was pulled away to sit at a separate section in the middle, with what seemed to be assorted important people. After a musical interlude, the host stood at the microphone and called up the captain of the Lancaster Cricket Team to the lectern and politely demanded a speech. He seemed less organised this time, most likely because he hadn’t been told about it. Rolf turned around to us from his seat and gave us a similar look to the one he’d given us at the press conference.  He was going to be a star at impromptu speeches by the time this trip was over. He was called up, and this time he seemed more comfortable, smashing out an affable speech worthy of any media savvy Australian cricketer. You could say that he hit it for six, if you’re a fan of good simple cricket metaphors.

Rolf was then individually called up to accept a glass plaque, along with representatives of all the other attendees, a plaque that would have the honour of being the first item in the FiFA trophy case. The whole team was then pulled up on stage for a photo, before being joined by Nicole Watkinson – the Austrade Senior Trade and Investment Commissioner for South Asia; a fellow Aussie who just happened to be at the same event, and arguably a more important one.

Before we left the event, we were mobbed by members of the Pakistani club cricket teams in attendance, all asking to join us for photos. It was my third day in Lahore and I had now perfected the photo smile. It was something I had never really had to perfect before, as “celebrity” was not something I’d ever had to deal with before. We were told the bus was leaving so we needed to head off, but Rolf was halted by a news crew for an interview, as per usual. Finally, we hopped on the bus and headed home.

The schedule for tomorrow had been changed – instead of simply playing Nepal back to back, we would be skipping the final pool game and playing them straight up for third spot. This would be our final chance to take home some silverware (bronzeware?) for the Australia Fistball Team, and the last chance on this tour to record the first ever victory for the Australian Fistball Team. Confidence was high, but a good nights sleep was essential. On the way home Eric, Lee and Rolf commented on the fact that they had the beginnings of what seemed to be sore throats. Not good news. Hopefully they wouldn’t turn into anything overnight.

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