Having a ball, hands down!

TNIE examines the silent revolution that’s been taking shape in the state’s sports arena the rise of handball. Now, 11 players are part of the national squad that will compete in the World University Championship to be held in Spain
Members of the Sacred Heart College handball team. From L to R: Nandhu Krishna K, Bijoy George, Anju Sabu, Archana M S, Anupama V R, Nirmal Cyriac
Members of the Sacred Heart College handball team. From L to R: Nandhu Krishna K, Bijoy George, Anju Sabu, Archana M S, Anupama V R, Nirmal Cyriac Photo | A Sanesh

KOCHI: About one-third of the team that will represent India in the upcoming World University Handball Championship hails from Kerala. Of the 32 players that make up the men’s and the women’s teams, the state’s representation is 11 — seven men and four women. How this came to be is no miracle. Our players have been quite dominant at the national level, clinching trophies for their respective universities and colleges.

Now, they will square off against the best student-athletes in the world when the games, organised by the International University Sports Federation (FISU), commence in June. This time, the event is being held in Antequera, Spain.

Competing at this level of the game is a career highlight for many university athletes. For others, it is a step up to the next level of performance. Given that it is India’s maiden entry in the event, much rides on the nearly 50-member contingent set to make this trip.

Here, TNIE introduces the players, the growing dominance of Kerala varsities in the game, and the perennial challenge that plagues the state’s sportspeople — lack of funds.

Brass tacks

What is handball, you ask? As the name implies, players are split into groups (the official count is seven) and they pass a ball to throw it into the goal of the opposing team. So, think football, but using just the hands. The game is also called throwball and is considered the second-fastest game in the world after ice hockey.

For long, the sport was thought to be inferior to more popular ones like cricket and football. However, the last decade or so has been the game’s golden era. Nowhere is this progress more profound than in Kerala, where two varsities have been championing the sport and, in the process, moulding future stars.

Mohammed Faris T
Mohammed Faris T

Of the 11 players from Kerala, eight belong to Mahatma Gandhi (MG) University and three to Calicut University. They are Anju Sabu, Anupama V R, Archana M S, Binoy George N J, Ramees P, Nirmal Syriac and Nandhu Krishna K from Sacred Heart College in Kochi; Archana Venu from

Assumption College, Changanassery; Savid M and Jeevan Jose Joji from Sahrdaya College at Kodakara; And Mohammed Faris T from Farook College, Kozhikode.

Almost all of them had taken up the game in school. If in the case of Archana Venu, it was because her school had no other avenues for sports, for Faris, it was because his institution had a long and cherished handball legacy. While the reasons are varied, each harboured a keen interest in the sport and a desire to progress further. Most of them have been playing handball for over a decade.

Handball powerhouse

As is very apparent, a majority of the players (seven) are from Sacred Heart (SH) College in Kochi. It’s also interesting to note that nine of the 11 players have undergone training at some point on the lakeside campus, considered a handball powerhouse.

In a span of 10 years, the SH men’s handball team has won eight inter-college championships and came runner-up in two. The women’s team, which began playing only four years ago, has already won three varsity championships. This dominance also saw SH players filling up the MG University squad.

“Of the 16 players that make up the varsity women’s handball team, 10 are from our college. Of the remaining, three are former students,” says coach Antony Mathai, who’s been associated with the college for 10 years. In the case of the men’s team, the SH dominance is even more stark. Fifteen of the 16-member squad have undergone training at the college. Of them, 10 are current students.

Even on the national stage, the players shone. “Last year, MG came second in the South India varsity-level handball tournament, thus securing a place in the national-level competition. There, we reached the quarter-finals. It’s no small feat,” says a representative of MG University.

This success saw Antony, who’s also the coach of MG handball teams, get selected as the national coach (men’s) for the upcoming FISU championship in Spain. However, the Kadavanthra native is reluctant to take all the credit.

“I have Ukrainian coach Alexi Popovich to thank for this. I trained at his handball academy in Kochi for five years. There, I was able to pick up new techniques and play styles. When I joined SH as a coach, I was able to impart these skills to my students,” says Antony.


What has no doubt helped SH players climb to the pinnacle, in addition to their rigorous training, is this Alexi-inspired play style. “Unlike other teams, we follow a ‘quick play’ system which relies more on individual skill than on piston movement,” explains Nandhu, one of the players.

The three Calicut University students are hopeful that they can pick up on this technique quickly. “Unlike football, positions in handball are more or less fixed. There’s not too much overlap. So, it won’t be too difficult,” says Faris, who’s part of the India squad.

As to the question of how they will gel with the remainder of the squad which hails from outside Kerala, Anju says, “We know most of them, especially players from the Southern states. We see them at competitions and are familiar with each other’s play style.”

Antony too has expressed confidence saying, “Each player in the squad is very skilled. All we have to do during the camp is knit them together as a team.” As for the camp details, the coach says, “We have not heard from the officials yet. From what I gather, training is slated to begin after the all-India tournament, which concludes mid-May.”


However, what ails the team is a lack of funds. Though they are representing India, the students are forced to meet the funds required to compete out of their own pockets.

“This is the real tragedy of our times. The sports culture is dying because young athletes don’t have a support system to pursue success in their sport. Later, many resort to a government job and abandon their dreams,” says a sports representative who wishes to remain anonymous.

Earlier, universities used to get grants from the Indian government to participate in sports competitions at the international level. However, this stopped about ten years ago.

“Thanks to the Sports Authority of India’s intervention, this practice may resume next academic year. For now, MG University has decided to provide 50 per cent of the funds to each of our students,” says Binu George Varghese, the sports director of MG university.

While this is indeed a big help for some, many players are yet to raise the necessary amount. “Since we had to meet the costs of visa processing and other matters urgently, my family bore the expenses. It’s my big dream to participate in a global tournament, and they didn’t want a lack of funds to get in the way. We hope sponsors will come forward to help,”says Bijoy.

He also adds, “For handball to flourish, we could use all the help we can get.” Most are also displeased with the state’s treatment of its sports stars. Especially given how the Tamil Nadu government has given 100% of the funds to its players. “This a bit of a disappointment, no doubt. But we don’t want to miss this chance,” says Jeevan.

Indeed. The game is a big opportunity for the players. If their recent performance is any indicator, the Indian team is certain to give everyone a run for their money. Now, could this usher in a new dawn for handball?

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