About a 20-minute drive away from Kottayam town on the route to Mannanam there is a sports centre perched atop a hillock. Under the watchful eyes of a priest, the centre has been producing a string of top sportspersons in recent years and quietly revolutionising sports training in the state.
Father Antony Kanjirathinkal, a priest belonging to the congregation of the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate (CMI) who runs the basketball and cricket academies of St Ephrem’s Higher Secondary School has a lot in his mind for the promotion of sports at the grassroots level. Besides spotting talent and nurturing it, the primary aim of his initiatives is to build a world-class sports training centre and help students from poor families get more job opportunities. Already, around 40 students from the academies have been offered jobs in the armed forces, police, KSEB, customs, banks and railways.
Mohammed Azharuddeen, who smashed an unbeaten 137 off 54 balls in a game against Mumbai in the domestic T20 Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy tournament recently, and was bagged by RCB in the IPL auction on Thursday, is a product of the cricket academy.
Fr Kanjirathinkal, fondly called Achan celebrated the famous century the same day by cutting a cake along with other students in the cricket academy, just the way he did when India snatched a historic win at the Gabba. “Achan understands our difficulties. He helped us get trained in a focussed way,” says Azharuddeen.
Sijomon Joseph, a key player in the state Ranji Trophy team, still comes to the academy for training. Joseph loves to use the training facilities in the academy as he feels Achan brings about a positive energy with him. “The ground here is the best one for training and the coaches are well-qualified. Above all, Achan is there to support me all the time,” says Joseph, who represented India in the U-19 series against England in 2017 and scored an unbeaten 62 and took seven wickets in his debut match.
Mohammed Shiraz, a promising basketball player too visits the academy whenever he gets time. The 21-year-old currently employed with the Kerala Police has represented India in the FIBA U-19 championship held in Iran in 2016. “I learned the basics at the academy. Achan’s support inspired me to succeed,” says Shiraz.
Fr Kanjirathinkal, who is 49, did his graduation in Theology from Dharmaram College in Bengaluru as well as in Economics from KE College, Mannanam. He completed his masters in Physical Education before joining St Ephrem’s School. He started the basketball academy in 2003-04 and the cricket academy in 2009. The basketball academy has the aid of the state sports council while the cricket academy is supported by the Kerala Cricket Association. The cricket academy started enrolling girls from 2014 and is only the second academy after the one in Krishnagiri in Waynad, which has a KCA women’s training centre. Both the academies boast of the best trainers in the state in cricket and basketball and the priest shares a special relationship with them all. VM Premkumar, one of the basketball coaches, has the experience of working with the national women’s basketball team.
Fr Kanjirathinkal has been trying his best to keep up the spirits of the boys and girls for the past one year during the unprecedented times of the pandemic. Covid-19 disrupted the sports calendar of around 60 boys and 12 girls in the academies. There were no events and restrictions were imposed on training. “Since sports events were cancelled, the students were not in a position to get grace marks,” said Fr Kanjirathinkal who is trying to bring these issues to the attention of the government. Though the events were called off, the priest did not want his wards to sit idle. Online programmes were regularly held for them by seniors who passed out of the academy as well as others who have made their marks in different fields.
Improving the infrastructure and facilities at the academy is now the priority for Fr Kanjirathinkal. The cricket academy has got a ground with lushgreen grass where there are three nets. There are an indoor net and a gymnasium on the top floor of the hostel building which has a mess hall, a study room, and rooms for the students. At the basketball academy, there is a cement indoor court and a wooden court in the nearby college. The academies admit students from Class VII-XII. All the students have to leave their mobiles with the priest by 10pm every day. “Good sleep is essential for a healthy body. I don’t want my students to stay awake till late night spending time on their phones,” says Fr Kanjirathinkal.
The fish, meat and vegetables for the students are procured by the priest himself from the market. The money he gets as a daily allowance for each student to run the hostel mess is never enough. “I don’t want to compromise on the food. The daily allowance comes to about Rs 200-300 for each student. That it is not enough for giving protein-rich food for them four times a day,” says the priest. Since the vendors know him well they never insist on immediate payment. That is a relief, he says.
Fr Kanjirathinkal goes wherever the players go. He says he wants to ensure the students get professional treatment. “I don’t believe in making my boys and girls participate in each and very tournaments,” he says. The priest has selected a handful of tournaments, which happen to be the best in the state in which his students take part. He is also very particular about the accommodation and food provided by the organisers. “I send my students only if they are provided good accommodation and food,” he says.
The priest describes the location where the centre is situated as “God’s gift”. It is serene, pollution-free, calm, and quiet. The centre is on a 45-acre land belonging to the CMI. There are a couple of schools and colleges, a pilgrim centre and a church.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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