The Malawi team matched the building hype with the narrowest of wins over the Scots. (ABC News: James Maasdorp)
Malawi just cannot get enough of stealing the spotlight at the Commonwealth Games, holding off Scotland in another netball nail-biter.
“The Queens” caught everyone’s attention after a stunning upset win over New Zealand’s Silver Ferns on Sunday, prompting recriminations across the Tasman and talks of a rankings surge in Malawi.
That 57-53 win over the world’s second-best team meant there was a genuine buzz around Malawi — ranked sixth in the world before the competition — heading into its match with ninth-ranked Scotland.
And they matched the building hype with the narrowest of wins over the Scots, holding on 51-50 despite conceding a string of scoring opportunities in the dying moments.
It moves Malawi third in the preliminary round Pool B, but its ambition is not even to make the medals placings. Realistically, the best it can hope for is progressing to the fifth/sixth play-off spot.
But ask anyone who cares.
The Commonwealth Games has showcased its “Friendly Games” moniker on a number of occasions so far, and we are only now coming up to the mid-point of competition.
See Australia’s athletes waiting four minutes to clap Lesotho’s Lineo Chaka over the line in the women’s 10,000m, the reception for transgender athlete Laurel Hubbard in the women’s weightlifting, and now the adulation heading Malawi’s way in the netball.
Win over New Zealand a euphoric moment for ‘The Queens’
For Malawi, it is about the journey and the fans it picks up on the way. And it will continue to do that if more scenes of joy follow like what met the full-time whistle against New Zealand.
Players collapsed to the floor, Malawi’s coach gesticulated towards the crowd with arms raised, before the entire team took it up a notch with synchronised dance moves.
“We have beaten the untouchables. We can walk tall now,” Malawi’s coach Whyte Mulilima said.
“Everybody will be shocked back home. They never expected us to win.
“New Zealand are the number two team in the world. Beating the champions means we are good. We are better. Our ranking should go up two [places] just by beating New Zealand.”
That win was even more remarkable given Malawi had lost to Uganda in its previous match, before picking itself off the canvas to post its first-ever win over the Silver Ferns.
The Commonwealth Games is also about making new household names for Malawi, one of whom should pretty much be one already.
Mwai Kumwenda is Malawi’s biggest goal threat, and with good reason.
The goal shooter was named player of the tournament at the 2015 World Cup, and netted 518 goals at 92 per cent accuracy for the Melbourne Vixens last Super Netball season.
Scotland gives Malawi a massive fright
Kumwenda would prove crucial against Scotland with her unerring shooting and awesome leap to collect high balls under pressure.
Given plenty of warning and perhaps inspired themselves by the Africans’ performances, Scotland came out with fight and incision to lead 13-12 after the first quarter.
For 10 minutes of the second period, Malawi looked undercooked and Scotland the more interested party, only for a positional switch in the middle and a host of long aerial balls triggered a flurry of goals as Kumwenda repeatedly leapt highest in the area.
It was a formidable turnaround for The Queens, going in 28-23 at half-time, though Scotland would reduce the deficit to 39-36 by the final break.
Takondwa Lwazi celebrated on the floor after the Malawi team’s win over Scotland. (ABC News: James Maasdorp)
The fourth quarter saw a huge scare as Scotland come back to within a point with just seconds remaining, and after some tetchy exchanges with the officials, Malawi conceded a slew of scoring opportunities, only for Scotland to spurn every chance.
At full-time, Malawi knew it had escaped at 51-50. The result leaves The Queens in third place, behind England and New Zealand, with a game against Wales left to play.
Mulilima said some help from above was the only explanation for Scotland missing a string of shots at the death.
“After winning that difficult game against New Zealand, everybody else wanted to come flat out for us and we know they will come hard on us,” he said.
“I almost died. They missed three chances — three shots. No. That meant God was with us.”
While Malawi’s chances of reaching the semi-finals (and a shot at a medal placing) are slim, Mulilima said even having that remote chance was a source of pride.
“It’s a pride to Malawi and every Malawian would be so happy to hear we have qualified and got a medal. The sky’s the limit. Let’s just wait and see,” he said.