There is something so compelling to suggest that either Malawi netball Queens are clutching onto the last straws of their Africa dominance or their invincibility is over.
Watching them between June 24 and 28 on the courts of College of Medicine Sports Complex and Blantyre Youth Centre, the Queens just looked ordinary for a number one team in Africa and fifth best side in the world.
One could not remember the last time the Queens looked worryingly so prone to unforced errors, a bundle of nerves and unable to, despite a roaring home crowd, strike fear in opponents.
The 54-52 extra time collapse under the weight of rivals South Africa’s Spar Proteas’ challenge could suggest that the Queens are gradually losing their grip as a gentle giant.
The absence of big shooter Mary Waya [now turned coach], the driving box-to-box force of Peace Chawinga-Kalua, the creativity of Slyvia Malenga-Mtetemera and Mwawi Kumwenda’s accurate shooting, took its toll on the Griffin Saenda side.
“That is what happens when you are playing young girls. We failed to control the game from the centre court,” noted Saenda, whose call for an injection of young players five years ago earned him more enemies.
Saenda was pushed aside for Edith Kaliati who stuck to the veterans at the expense of gradual introduction of the youngsters such as Loreen Ngwira and Joyce Mvula.
It seems the Queens are paying the price of a badly managed transition.
Suddenly, the young players have been thrown to the deep end and swimming up the netball stream is proving a tall order.
They say statistics do not lie. And for the Queens, the numbers are telling a story of either a team in steady decline or utter stagnation.
At the 2012 Diamond Challenge Cup in Pretoria, South Africa, Malawi thrashed Zambia 75-32 only for the She Chipolopolo this year to narrow the margin to just seven as they lost to Malawi 55-48.
At the 2012 Africa Netball Challenge Championship, which Malawi retained in Tanzania, the Queens trampled on Zimbabwe 55-22 or by 33 baskets margin.
In this year’s edition, the Queens beat the Zimbabweans by 25 baskets with Mvula’s late introduction calming the nerves of an otherwise jittery Malawi side.
The shaky semi-final play-off match against an exhausted Ugandan side that had travelled by public transport, delivered the warning signs, culminating in the ultimate loss to South Africa coached by Elize Kotze.
The South African coach offered perspective of not only the Malawi-South Africa rivalry but also how the rest of African netball is breaking the Malawi-South Africa duopoly.
“It is narrowing. You can see that the whole standard of netball is getting higher. Playing Uganda was tough as they are physical and we had to adapt. It is good for the game in Africa,” Kotze acknowledged.
While the rest of the continent, particularly South Africa, is spreading the netball gospel, targeting two million women through an introduction of a professional league, it is worrying that Malawi netball standards are stagnant as competition is only among Bingu Tigresses, Escom Sisters, MTL Queens and Blue Eagles.
Imagine the continent’s top netballing nation does not have an official sponsor, let alone an in-door netball court.
That the Netball Association of Malawi (NAM) could not attract a single worthwhile sponsor during the championship speaks volume of how much the game is lagging behind.
NAM president Rosy Chinunda could only complain over the lack of support to a sport that puts Malawi on the map, but beyond that, the truth is that NAM has no strategic plan to take the game to the next level.
Kotze could only feel sorry for the beaten rival, noting: “I still believe African governments can do better. Malawi must have their own indoor facility. They are the top team in Africa.”
The Queens have in the last three meetings with South Africa lost twice and won once, confirming the decline which Youth and Sports Minister Enoch Chihana is aware of.
“Netball is a big game in Malawi, but its leadership, of late, has left a lot to be desired. There is no way such a body could be operating without a strategic plan and has never had one,” Chihana observed in an interview with Nation of Sunday of April 21 2013.