Prem the team joker who plays her aces

Singapore goal defender Premila Hirubalan (right) attempts to block a shot at the 2014 Nations Cup.
Singapore goal defender Premila Hirubalan (right) attempts to block a shot at the 2014 Nations Cup.

When Singapore's netballers gather for training now, a familiar loud voice will be missing.

Premila Hirubalan, who made her debut in 1999, was "the voice of the team" during her 17-year international career, according to team-mate Nurul Baizura.

With a penchant for jokes and a zest for winning, Hirubalan lifts the team's spirits. Above all, it was her competitiveness that struck national coach Ruth Aitken the most.

"Prem was fiercely competitive, with the emphasis on fiercely. She is a real extrovert who brought life and energy to the group. She absolutely loves to win, is willing to verbalise it, and works really hard to achieve it," said Aitken, who added that Hirubalan, who announced her international retirement alongside team-mates Micky Lin and Chen Huifen on May 10, backed up her desire to win by being the boldest player on court.

Although fun and jokes are part of her personality, Hirubalan deliberately took things up a notch when the team needed it, saying: "It's just me, but it's also true that I am extra noisy when the girls are nervous or need to loosen up. Laughing and being happy is a cure for anything, and it keeps us close."

While Singapore's most-capped netballer (117 appearances) was a force to be reckoned with during competitions, Hirubalan was full of mischief duing trainings.

Baizura said: "At every training there is something that she wants to joke about. She believes that we perform better when everyone is happy, and is committed to lifting the mood of the team."

Baizura added that the goal defender's passion was matched by her sporting abilities, saying: "Premila was a player in her own league.

"She had her own gym programme outside of our training, and it gave her the physique and athleticism to stand out on court."

It is no surprise that Hirubalan was "feared by teams in the region", according to Netball Singapore's chief executive officer Cyrus Medora. On the court, the 33-year-old can be a relentless competitor who can dabble in mind games to unsettle her opponents.

As Lin revealed: "(She trash-talked) a lot. You just can't hear from the sidelines.

Hirubalan's commitment to the game was also undoubted, as Chen recalled: "We once went for a wedding dinner on a weekday, and she questioned our decision to miss training for it. She made sure we made up for it the next day."

Before the SEA Games final against Malaysia last year, Hirubalan, a medical officer in the department of anaesthesiology at Singapore General Hospital, made all the players write short phrases on their wrists.

"We wrote things like 'jump higher', 'run faster'," said Baizura. "At that moment when everyone was tense, we just got distracted from the pressure of the game."

Minutes later, the team wrote themselves into history, winning the Republic's first netball gold at the biennial Games with a 46-43 victory.

Ng Keng Gene

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 30, 2016, with the headline 'Prem the team joker who plays her aces'. Print Edition | Subscribe