Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

This day was a big one, so for the first time in this series, i’ll need to break it down with sub headings!

The Practice Matches

Finally, we were going to be tested. The Indian team were staying at the same hotel as us and they seemed to be very young but enthusiastic kids. We had to assume that they would be nimble and energetic, but what would their skills be like? As for Pakistan, we knew they had won the last fistball tournament here, and by all accounts quite convincingly. Surely they were the favourite, particularly with home ground advantage. And where did Australia fit in with all of this? We had practiced semi-regularly in the 3 months leading up to this event, but had only played one practice game, and that was without Lee or Eric. It had become apparent during conversations that our hosts had high hopes for us, if not purely for the positive press that would come with it.

In addition to the practice games, tonight had been set as the Opening Ceremony for the tournament. As with the practice games, we also had no idea what to expect. Before we had left Australia we assumed it would be a low key affair, maybe just a dinner with a meet & greet… but then again, we also didn’t exactly expect the media frenzy that greeted us at the airport only a few days earlier, so all bets were off.

The previous morning, Usman had informed us that the Nepalese team had missed their flight, much to his frustration. He had booked another flight for them this morning, but there was some uncertainty as to whether they would board that one. It was starting to look like a classic Australia v India v Pakistan tri nations was on the cards.

The practice matches were scheduled to begin at 10am. Thanks to a few stragglers, we boarded the bus to the University at 11am. This was becoming a theme. As we barely scraped the tour bus through the gates and into the carpark, the grounds came into view. Surrounded by extensive construction work was a large grassy field with a covered stand to one side, enough seats for maybe 200 spectators. Workers were feverously setting up the court as we got there, so we applied our sunscreen and went for a team jog in an attempt to intimidate our Indian opposition. Soon after we’d finished our lap we noticed they had started doing the same thing – it must’ve worked. Finally we took to the field and the first game kicked off.

Immediately it became apparent that we had not played fistball in some time. The first set was an embarrassing comedy of errors, highlighted by poor calling, ugly “misfists” off the side of our forearms, and a distinct lack of organisation. The Indians were all over us, out-working us and hustling to every ball… not that we were making it hard for them. Our serves were unintimidating and too many returns were desperation lobs to the middle of the court. I think we lost that set 11-4, or something to that effect. It was embarrassing, and we needed to regroup.

There was some improvement in the second set. We begun making conscious efforts to scream “mine!” anytime when we were going for the ball, and were committing fully to that call. However, our skills were still sloppy, and we were throwing away easy points. I think we lost that set 11-9. Or something. We were down two sets to nil in our first international practice match, and we were determined to stop the bleeding. We have ourselves a pep talk, and handed Lee the ball for the third set.

One of Lee’s nicknames is “The Power Station”, and as we started the third set it became apparent that the main supply was now on, and had been cranked to maximum power. He began throwing down power serves so hard and fast that the ball had become an indistinguishable blur wizzing past the legs of the hapless Indian defenders. The instinctively moved even further back on the serves, but to no avail. When they were able to return a serve out of pure blind luck, Lee was there again to smash it back down their throats. The whole credit for the third and fourth sets shouldn’t go purely to Lee however – the whole team stepped up, perhaps inspired by Lee’s ruthless intent. Jim started swinging serves around diving bodies, Rolf and Eric were returning everything in sight and my sets were landing just were they needed to. Admittedly, this is just the way the memory exists in my mind, and I’m sure it was probably more evenly matched than I remember… but whatever.

It had come down to a fifth set, and we were in the box seat. We quickly jumped out to a 6-3 lead, and looked set to record our first international victory… but then something happened. I can’t determine what exactly it was, but all I know is that the Indians notched up 7 straight points, and after a brief resistance in the dying moments, they knocked up their 11th point and took home the chocolates. It was a disappointing end, but a good hit out and invaluable in our preparation for tomorrow.

As it was a hot and sunny day we were keen to take a break, so India took to the field against Pakistan. Immediately it became apparent that Pakistan were a different beast. While India’s strength was their little guys hustling to return every ball, Pakistan’s strength was brute force and pin point accuracy. It became instantly clear that their team was filled with volleyballers and rugby players, and the small crowd “oooh-ed” and “aaah-ed” each time their star attacker jumped halfway over the net to smash the ball into the corner. They were clearly the team to beat.

Right before we took to the field against Pakistan in our final practice match, Usman informed us that the game would only be one set, as we needed to get to a press conference shortly. Yes, a press conference. I’m not sure Rolf completely understood what he was getting himself into when he appointed himself President of FiFA, but he was certainly getting his time in the sun now. Speaking of time in the sun, we headed back out for a quick one set thrashing by Pakistan. We only lost 11-6, but it felt like 11-0. Perhaps our mind was on the press conference.

The Press Conference

We boarded the bus again and were taken straight to the press conference at the National Hockey Stadium. We would’ve appreciated a shower and change, but there was apparently no time.  When we got there, we were greeted by a long decorated panel table lined with microphones and 30 video cameras set up to record the day’s event. We sat in the area signed “Australia Fistball Team” and waited. Rolf was ushered up to the panel to sit with 9 other esteemed guests, along with our IFA representative – Bernd Höckel – and the presidents of the Indian fistball team and the Nepalese fistball team, who had thankfully chosen to catch their flight.

We noticed the Lancaster University cricket team had attended as well. They were apparently in town to take on a bunch of the local cricket teams plus the Pakistan national team, and they had two representatives on the panel as well. The panel began, and the host addressed the captain of the Lancaster University cricket team and said “can you please tell us about your experiences here in Lahore and what your impressions have been of our city”. The captain immediately began reading a prepared speech from his iPhone. Rolf instantly turned to us with a “oh crap” look on his face. He was going to have to wing it. The same question was posed to Rolf, and he started his speech with “g’day”. He was going to be ok.

Leaving the event was another story. It seemed that every entry or exit to a location we’d been to so far consisted of an awkwardly tight corner lined with cars… not exactly ideal for manoeuvring a full sized tour bus.  As the bus driver tried to leave the Stadium’s arched driveway, he found himself completely thwarted by the closeness of a car parked on the right hand side of the bus. If we could just move the car, we could get out cleanly, but the driver of this car was nowhere to be found. Jim looked out the window, assessed the situation, and stated “it’s a pretty small car, we could probably move it?”. The Australian fistball team filed out of the bus, and with the help of a few other team members pushed the car off to the side using nothing but brute force. It was manly, and humourous, and a few spectators cheered at the spectacle. I made sure to place my hands on the car to ensure I was remembered as one of the manly men, but to be honest I’m not sure I helped. We reboarded the bus and headed back to the hotel to prepare for the Opening Ceremony.

The Opening Ceremony

VJ had organised the opening ceremony, and we suspected he knew what he was doing. We had met VJ at the airport when we first arrived, and he immediately gave the impression that he was somewhat of a “fixer”. As in, he fixed things… made them run smoothly. Hence, we called him “The Fixer”. He also had the greatest selection of fitted suits I had ever seen. The guy had style. While the airport welcome was much more than what we expected, we suspected that this had been the big welcome, and that the Opening Ceremony would probably a slightly more low key event.

We ran inside and once again threw on our freshly pressed Australia blazers over a white shirt and tie. While we may not the best fistball team here, we were determined to be the best dressed. We jumped back on the bus again with the Indian and Nepalese teams and headed back to the University.

As we walked down the main walkway of the University, we peeked off to the right, where some sort of rally appeared to be taking shape in the cloisters, judging by all the lights and the voice blasting over the microphone in Urdu. It was dark though, so we couldn’t really make out what was happening. Some girls walked past us, and smiled and giggled as we waved before shuffling back to the darkness of the cloisters.

After standing around for a few more minutes we were ushered into a lecture hall where we sat with the other three teams, posing for photos and making small chit chat. A couple of Pakistani guys came in with traditional Pakistani hats and posed for photos as well. There still seemed to be no indication of what was to come. Finally VJ walked in and summoned us to follow him out the door at the base of the room. As we stepped out we were immediately greeted by eight young women, two of which were holding poles adored with the Australian flag. It would appear that we had flag bearers. It also became apparent that this “rally” was in fact a pre-Opening Ceremony pep talk for the crowd. Now we were excited. What would greet us in the cloisters? From our angle, all we could see is darkness intertwined with green lighting. The four teams lined up behind their respective flag bearers, and we waited for the go-ahead. “Australia, start heading up now please”. We followed our flag bearers’ lead up the stairs and out into the open area.

“Please welcome Australia!” the voice blasted out of the speakers as we moved forward. Crowds of people lined the darkness against the walls of the buildings while others were crammed around the barriers surrounding the cloisters. As we moved forward into the scene they screamed, cheered and clapped enthusiastically. We all looked at each other in bemusement, huge grins on our faces as we tried to take in the surreal scenario we were smack bang in the middle of experiencing. They were cheering for us! I looked around and noticed that the crowd seemed to consist of nothing but girls. I would’ve pinched myself, but I now knew to not assume this was a dream. This was very much real. As the teams lined up in the centre of the area and stood for attention, our national anthems were blasted out one by one. I sang along, glad that I still remembered the words from my Primary School assemblies. This was one of the moments we had yearned for when we started playing fistbll, and we were now experiencing it. Unfortunately I could not summon the single masculine patriotic tear that would endear me to the crowd, but it mattered not.

Once we were seated in our designated areas a selection of student acts performed, including a percussionist with his own personal smoke machine and several singing duo acts. One of the many dignitaries invited to the ceremony declared the official commencement of the first Asian Fistball Championship, and we were instantly greeted with visual overload in the space of roughly 10 seconds – fireworks, sparklers, released balloons and a rotating lighting display.  The crowd went nuts. It was a lot to take in, but I wanted it to go on forever. It was by far the biggest ego trip I had experienced to date, and despite the fact that I knew I didn’t really deserve it, I couldn’t get enough of it. We were asked to move to the cafeteria for dinner, and as we filed out of the area groups of girls followed along on the side of the pathway waving at us. The screamed each time we waved back. If I didn’t keep my ego in check, I would probably foolishly expect the same reaction in Australia.

We settled into dinner and tried to comprehend what had just happened. We knew that we had just experienced a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Suddenly we felt a need to play better than we had previously thought possible when we would finally take to the field tomorrow – we wouldn’t want to let the crowd down. We filed back onto the bus and headed home to sleep. We would need to bring our “A game” against the Indian team – we would be locked in battle against them at 10am.  A victory against them would surely put us on track to secure a place in the final, a goal we now thought possible based on the day’s practice. Richard arrived at the hotel later that evening and we had to break the news that he’d missed an epic Opening Ceremony. He was justifiably optimistic that there would still be epic events to come. It would be handy to have six players available this time around as well, so long as we could work out the best way to operate. The tournament was about to begin. Aussie, Aussie, Aussie…

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