Malawi Queens will continue to drop on World Netball rankings and find themselves on the negative end of Africa’s netball progress if Netball Association of Malawi (NAM) continues to neglect proper player transition process, netball analysts have warned.
Former Queens’ centre Annie Mopiha, Southern Region Netball Committee chairperson Judith Chalusa and analyst Wesley Namasala are concerned that the gap between the Queens and teams ranked below them is narrowing while that with sides above them is widening ahead of this month’s Commonwealth Games in the United Kingdom and the Netball World Cup in South Africa next year.
They said it was hard to believe that the Queens have, for the past decade, dropped from being the best team to third in Africa.
Last year, the Queens lost the Africa Netball Championship’s runner-up slot to Uganda’s She Cranes in Namibia before eventually surrendering the world netball’s sixth ranking. Their woes began in 2013 when South Africa snatched the continental crown and the world’s fifth ranking.
During the recent Cosana Tri-Nations Cup in Blantyre, the seventh-ranked Queens lifted the cup after registering six-straight wins against 13th-ranked Zimbabwe and 22nd-ranked Namibia before losing all their training matches against fifth-ranked hosts South Africa and third-ranked England.
Mopiha, who played for the Queens for seven years before quitting active netball after the Mebourne Commonwealth Games in 2006, said: “We urgently need to rebuild the national team if we are to effectively compete at the World Cup next year.
“While some countries have been concentrating on identifying and nurturing talent, we have done nothing.
“With the current squad, we are able to perform against our rivals, but our main problem is keeping up with speed of the game. We have the experience of the old guards, which is still vital to the team, but we also need more young and energetic players to cope with the pace.”
She added that the transition process would only be smooth once the player selection is left in the hands of the coaches and not administrators and if the players are given enough resources and incentives.
For the past five years, Uganda’s She Cranes have moved seven places up the rankings to displace the Queens from sixth after a vigorous exercise of talent nurturing and team rebuilding. Within the same period, Zimbabwe’s Gems and Namibia’s Desert Jewels upped their game to rise from 17th to 13th and 37th to 22nd, respectively.
Almost 80 percent of the current Queens squad comprises of players that have been in the team for over 10 years and the few players that trickled into the system have, for the past few years, hardly been exposed to international games to gain experience and learn the ropes from the old-guards.
Over the past decade, Malawi relaxed on talent development and the Botsalt Southern Region Netball Committee Under-23 League as the only youth competition. Malawi has not been actively participating in international youth competitions at all levels.
Yet, the bulk of the current senior players such as Caroline Mtukule-Ngwira, Towera Vinkhumbo-Nyirenda, Mwawi Kumwenda and Sindi Simtowe-Msowoya had an opportunity to regularly compete in youth competitions and rubbed shoulders with former Queens stars such as Mopiha, Chalusa, current head coach Peace Chawinga-Kaluwa, Mary Waya and Linda Magombo before gradually taking over and inheriting the team’s DNA.
Kumwenda became the country’s first netball export after being spotted by Australian outfit Pensular Waves following her impressive performance at the 2009 Under-21 Netball World Cup in Cook’s Island.
“We need to give the young players more international exposure. Currently we have the Under-19 national team which needs to be kept intact as we set up other youth structures from the under-10 age group,” said Chalusa.
On his part, Namasala said the current squad is ageing and there is a need for a smooth transition from the veterans to the upcoming players.
“Sadly, we are not doing enough on youth development. One can hardly figure out replacements of the current squad. There is almost nothing at youth level for talent identification and nurturing,” he said.
“Today, we are winning against Zimbabwe, Zambia and Namibia with narrow margins as compared to the time that the likes of Waya and Chawinga-Kaluwa were playing. The gap between Malawi and South Africa is now widening as day and night. We used to beat them, but they are now far ahead of us.”
Namasala said Malawi needs to have Under-15, Under-18 and Under-21 leagues across the country to act as platforms for unearthing raw talent.
NAM general secretary (GS) Isaac Chimwala said the Queens’ transition plan has been on top of their agenda since the team finished third at the Africa Championship in 2019, but the recent restrictions on sports due to Covid-19 spoiled their mission.
“We started our rebuilding process ahead of the 2022 Commonwealth Games and the 2023 World Cup by organising player identification exercises and training camps at regional level, but we could not continue after the Covid-19 restrictions,” he said.
But is there anything that NAM is doing now to ensure the Queens have a strong squad ahead of the imminent global competitions?
Chimwala said it is true that the current crop of Queens players has passed its prime and it is indeed time they engaged an extra gear on the transition process.
“We have embarked on the programme that managed to come up with the Under-19 national team, which finished as runners up at the 2021 Region 5 Youth Games in Lesotho. We have young players such as Chifuniro Moses and Stella Materezi that have shown potential. In the senior team, the likes of Tendai Masamba and Sheila Dimba are also making headway,” he said.
“The only thing that we would probably want to do well is scouting for tall players. Most of the players we have are very good, but are not vertically advantaged. There is a deliberate plan to seriously look at that aspect.”
The NAM GS explained that their long-term plans are to introduce netball academies and come up with junior leagues for various age groups.
“We have since partnered with the Malawi Schools Sports Association on the establishment of the junior leagues,” he said.