Friday, April 11th, 2014

I woke up in the night with the chills. Probably didn’t need the airconditioner on. I reached over and turned off the unit, then got up to grab a t-shirt from my suitcase to wear. While trying to find a shirt, I was overcome with uncontrollable shivers. “That’s weird,” I thought to myself. I slipped on the first shirt I could get my hands on and wrapped myself up in the covers until I stopped shaking. Four hours later I woke up with a face full of phlegm. Rubbing my eyes, I coughed until my throat was clear and found a handful of tissues to remove the blockage from my nostrils. It was gross, and my head wasn’t a fan of it either. Hopefully a coffee would at least take away the pounding headache, but I couldn’t do much about the mucus – I hadn’t prepared myself for the fact that I might get a cold in the 30 degree dry heat of Pakistan. Then again, maybe it wasn’t a cold at all.

I was told before I left that Pakistan had a high malaria risk across the whole country, but I was the only one in the team taking expensive Malarone tablets to try and fight it off.  “It would just be typical that I’d be the one to get malaria,” I mumbled to myself. I looked up the symptoms on WebMD – fever, chills, headache, sweats, fatigue and nausea. I didn’t have a fever, but I did have the chills earlier in the night. I definitely had a headache, and I was a little sweaty. Was I fatigued? I dunno, I’d just woken up. Best to ignore that test for now. Nausea? Didn’t seem to have any of that either. All good. A started coughing again, this time a dry, fruitless cough. I looked further down the article and found other common symptoms of malaria – dry (non-productive) cough, muscle or back pain and enlarged spleen. Well I certainly had the first one, and my back was aching, but was that just from a solid day of fistball? As for the spleen, that was a tough one to ascertain… I guessed I’d probably feel that though. Either way, I had decided – I had malaria. I mentioned it to Rolf and Richard and they laughed. “Sounds more like ebola”, they suggested, “or maybe it’s just dengue fever”. I sensed they weren’t taking my suspicions seriously. I bit the bullet and got up to have breakfast. Malaria be damned, today was an important day.

After breakfast, Rolf stated that they were going to head out to buy postcards to send to the people that had bought them through our Sportaroo fundraising campaign. They were also going to go and see the Fort, the magnificent structure that sits next to the mosque we visited a few nights before. I chose to stay home and rest until the game – the schedule had us playing at 5pm, so there was plenty of time to try and recover. They headed off and did the touristy thing. Judging by the photos, they had a lot of fun and saw some awesome sights… but whatever, I had malaria-ish symptoms.

Once the boys were back, we sat down for lunch at the hotel, discussed tactics and laughed at the postcards that looked like they were printed sometime around 1978. I was feeling a little better, but still rather sluggish. I chucked on the Aussie national guernsey for the last time and headed down to the lobby. As we were about to depart, I decided to quickly go to the bathroom for a no.2. I got a lot more than I expected. Was diarrhoea one of the symptoms? I couldn’t remember. Either way, I quickly slammed down an Imodium tablet. I couldn’t risk this happening while I was out on the field. While warming up the day prior I had accidently smacked the ball into my own face and a group of girls in the crowd had witnessed it. My jaw still hurt from that errant fist, and I wasn’t about to add “on-field diarrhoea attack” to the highlight reel. When we got to the University I dashed to the toilet again for a similar result, and popped another tablet. Hopefully that would be the last of it.

We had already decided that I would sit out the first set to see how I felt. It seemed fair enough – even in the warm-ups, I was paying far too much attention to my stomach control, and moving like a man with that on his mind. As we finished our warm up, we were organised in single file on the sideline on either side of the net, facing our respective backcourts. At the front of our line was a new Australian flag bearer, excited to lead the Aussies into battle. Once the signal was given, the two teams simultaneously walked in opposite directions behind our respective flag bearers, following the court lines around to the other sideline where we lined up again, this time facing the stands. The familiar strands of Advance Australia Fair once again kicked in, and we sung along in a way that was hopefully not loud enough to be picked up by the cameras. This was a big one, and we felt it.

Nepal won the toss and chose their side, giving us first service. Nepal had been swept in their previous two games, and we had every right to be confident. I sat on the sidelines and hoped I would have the energy to fire up in the second set and help build winning momentum. Immediately Australia looked strong – Lee was on song, Jim was solid and the backline was doing what it needed to do.  We broke their serve early and road that to an 11-8 first set victory. A great start for Australia, and it was looking incredibly positive. I switched places with Rolf and braced myself for the second set. The stomach was under control, so I had no excuses.

We started the second set strongly, but started to fade fast. Suddenly skill errors were the hot commodity, and everybody wanted to record one. The Nepal defence, one that had previously been shaky at best, was now looking solid and not many balls were slipping through. Their star spiker was heating up as well, making far less mistakes than in previous games and sending down fist missiles with ruthless abandon. We battled away but gave away some cheap points at the end via some ugly misfists and they capitalised to take the set 13-11.

It was only one set all, but they already seemed to have the momentum. They seemed to have endless energy whereas we were sluggish and sloppy. Perhaps it was our respective ages catching up with us? Perhaps we were feeling the effects of the six days prior? Or maybe it was just a case of the true Nepal team coming to the fore, forcing us into bad hits and silly mistakes? Either way, it felt ominous, but I felt like we could still turn it around.

We didn’t. We lost the next two sets 11-9, but it was far more convincing than the scores may suggest. Lee kept us in the game, throwing down vicious unreturnable serves when he could, but we just couldn’t break a serve back. The fatigue clearly showed. At one point, I was guilty of an incredible “brain fade” – after dashing into the frontcourt to connect on a late set for Lee, I continued through with forward momentum and inexplicably grabbed the net as I ran under it. It was an unfathomable action, and it gifted them a point. I couldn’t believe I’d done it; I must’ve been in another world. I ran back to my position, shaking my head and trying to avoid eye contact with my teammates. They were shocked, but forgiving. Everyone had played terrible, and we had saved our worst for last. I had the honour of the final error – a misguided attempt to smash the ball back from midcourt that landed fairly on the net. The game was over.

It seemed to hit me the worst – I was absolutely gutted. The competitive side in me had already dreamed of recording that first victory and taking home some kind of bronze trophy for the FiFA trophy cabinet back home. I slumped over and stared at the ground for what seemed like hours. Went I finally straightened up, I walked over and shook hands with the Nepal players before wandering aimlessly around the field, staring glassy-eyed off into the distance. We finally gathered in a circle and lamented what could have been. The other guys seemed disappointed, but had come to terms with it. I hadn’t. My emotions were getting the better of me, and after an emotional outburst in the huddle, I knew I needed to chill the eff out. I took several deep breaths and looked around at the amazing moment in history that I had just taken part in. Once I noticed the joy the faces of the Nepalese team, I cracked a genuine grin. They were good guys, and I was happy for them. There was no point marinading in self-pity.

At the end of the day, we had to give full credit to Nepal. They were the better team, and they had made us look bad by making life difficult for us. We would come away from this tournament with a better sense of where we stand in international competition and what we needed to do to improve. We could definitely take solace in the fact that we had pushed every team we’d come up against and put ourselves in a position to win every game. Just needed that killer instinct to put them away.  Next time.

The day wasn’t over yet though, there was still the final to come. Pakistan were heavily favoured, as they had been all tournament, but India were definitely a dark horse. India had made it to the final by playing ferocious bulldog fistball, making sure every smash and lob by the opposition was put back into play. To beat them, you would need pinpoint accuracy on your hits, otherwise you’d just watch it come right back. Pakistan had the arsenal to do it however, with probably the best server in the tournament  – one who could swerve and slide the ball with ease – as well as easily the best spiker in the tournament – a volleyball star who seemed to hover above the net for extended periods, summing up where best to crush the ball before promptly doing so.

The crowd had now grown to full capacity. The girls that had lined the walls and railings of our opening ceremony had been ushered into the stands, eager (or instructed) to cheer for both teams. The capacity crowd resulted in a palpable atmosphere, and the floodlights that had been set up at late notice lit up the field for our first-ever night fistball game. We took our places in the stands and watched a thrilling game unfold.

The first set was a shambles. The grass had become dewy once the sun went down, and the ball was sliding aggressively across the field. Nobody could return a serve. Finally Pakistan stopped an India serve in its tracks and we had a rally on our hands. Pakistan seemed to be getting the hang of it by the end of the set, and pushed ahead to take it 11-7. They carried over the dominance to the second set, taking that one 11-8 as well, but India had started to show signs. Either the conditions have become less dewy or India had altered their approach to combat the movement of the ball, but either way they were starting to challenge Pakistan.

In the third and fourth sets, India starting forcing Pakistan to play their style of game. They were returning everything once again, and Pakistan was being forced into uncharacteristic errors. Taking the sets 11-9 and 11-8, the tide had turned, and an upset was on the cards. With the crowd screaming for their team, Pakistan found another gear and starting playing with precision in the fifth. Their spiker started repeatedly slamming the ball back into India’s court, and they repelled as many as they could. Eventually it would be too much, and Pakistan took the final set 11-7. It was a deserving victory, and the home team got to celebrate appropriately.

Instantly a fireworks display kicked off, followed by a row of sparklers that started shooting in all directions. I don’t believe that part was intended. Either way, it was a spectacle we’d grown to expect, and it was a magnificent moment. As if authorised by the spectacle, I turned around to see a group of girls looking at me, asking for a photo opportunity. I obliged. As the photo was about to be taken, one of them leaned in and said “you are sooooooo cute!” I was a little embarrassed, but flattered. I was then caught in what seemed to be a never-ending carousel of photo opportunities. I am quite certain that the Australian national fistball team is in well over 1,000 Facebook photos that we’ll never see.

I’d completely forgotten about the earlier loss as we were pulled down to join the other teams on the field for the presentations.  Rolf accepted another glass plaque on our behalf, and the medals were presented to the other teams. Then the jumper switches began. Before I knew it I was walking around wearing a Pakistan top, and someone was walking around wearing mine. We had deliberately purchased 3 tops each for two reasons – so that we didn’t have to depend on hotel laundry, and so that we could hand out our spare tops at the end of the tournament. Everyone soon started following suit, and the teams became unrecognisable. Eric and Jim, now wearing India tops, slipped into the India team photo almost unnoticed. Almost. I turned around and noticed that not a single girl remained in the stands. Perhaps they were just a figment of my imagination, designed to lift me up from the doldrums of defeat? No, that’s ridiculous. They were just very efficient. I turned around to see Rolf being interviewed for TV. Standard.

We headed back to the cafeteria for dinner and reflection. Bernd made a speech to the teams and organisers, and praised them for their efforts. Rolf also made a speech – after all, that’s what he had grown accustomed to. He handed out FiFA terry towelling hats to the chief organisers and praised the multi-functional tool for its ability not only shade the sun, but also to remove a hot radiator cap or act as a beer coosy. They seemed confused, yet politely impressed.

Once the speeches were over, we headed home to unwind. It was amazing to think that the tournament was already over. We had been building up to this moment at the Asian Championships for over six months, from the first moment it was announced as a possibility. We had been building up to representing Australia in fistball from the moment we started playing, back in January 2013. I really had to take a step back and take it all in, as it had been a hell of a ride and I had been living in the moment. It was now time to look at it from the outside and appreciate what a huge moment this was. Here I was in Pakistan, legitimately wearing the green and gold and battling against other countries in front of a crowd, playing with my mates and playing well. Amazing.

We had one day left in Lahore before we headed home. Hopefully that would give enough opportunity for Rolf to get on Pakistan TV one last time.

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