THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: Blink and you could miss the small cricket coaching facility at one of the corners of the sprawling Medical College Ground here which comes alive every morning and evening with a flurry of activities.
It could be mistaken for any of the multitudes of such cricket academies spread across the country. But looks can be deceiving. With modest resources, this training centre has been churning out hundreds of cricketers over the past decade and a half.
And not just ordinary cricketers either. From Kerala's supertalented wicketkeeper-batsman Sanju V Samson to Kerala Ranji Trophy captain Rohan Prem and Kerala limited-overs captain Sachin Baby have all learned the tricks of their trade from the Sports Authority of India's (SAI) cricket coaching centre at the Medical College Ground.
The SAI centre can stake a claim for being the cradle of Kerala cricket and they have the numbers to prove it. Have a look at their contribution to the Kerala state team this season itself. As many as 16 cricketers who are current trainees at the centre have played for Kerala at various age-group teams in the 2016-17 season.
These include Sachin, Sanju, Raiphi Vincent Gomez and Prasanth Padmanabhan who represented the Kerala senior side in the Ranji Trophy and Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 Trophy to Rohan Nair, Abhi Biju, Anuraj S S and Abhishek J Nair who featured for the state side for those aged 14 years and below.
The centre was started at the turn of the millennium 17 years ago by coach Biju George and its first batch featured the likes of Prasanth, Raiphi, Rohan Prem, Nizar Niyaz and Sambasiva Sarma who all made a name for themselves in the game.
From S Ramakrishnan who became the first player from the centre to make his first-class debut in 2004 to Sanju who won his first Team India cap in a T20 International in 2015, the centre has gone from strength to strength over the course of years.
Apart from Sanju, three other trainees of the centre have gone on to represent India -- Raiphi playing for India U-16, Rohan Prem for India U-19 and Sachin for India 'A' teams -- speaking volumes of its impact.
"While most of the centres train one time a day. But we have double sessions from 6.30 am to 10 am and then 2.30 pm till around 7 pm," said Biju. It might be seeing the hard work and dedication that SAI decided to come on board and support the academy starting 2010.
"We now have three astroturf wickets built by SAI and a poly grass wicket donated by the Kerala Cricket Association. The Government Medical College management has also helped. Whatever we lack in facilities, we make up for it with work," said Biju who now coaches around 96 young cricketers.
"We started in 2000 with minimal facilities and six trainees. Now, we have around 100 trainees at the centre from 12-year-olds to senior pros like Sachin, Sanju, Raiphi and Prasanth. In the last few year, we have been able to reach out to more young cricketers" said Biju.
"As the numbers have increased in recent years, it has become difficult for me to attend to each of the new trainees. But I do my best to coach them batting, bowling and fielding techniques to make them a better cricketer. The senior players also training with the youngsters are also a huge inspiration for the youngsters coming into the game," he said.
Biju who has previously worked with the Kerala Ranji Trophy team, India U-19 national team, Kuwait national team and Kolkata Knight Riders said that the academy accepts all youngsters irrespective of their cricket ability.
"We will recruit anyone who is interested in playing cricket and the training is absolutely free. We have had trainees coming from as far as Kollam and Thrissur as well as coastal areas like Puluvila," the coach said.
The centre takes new players every year and Biju himself makes sure that he reaches out to schools across the city in search for the next star.
"I go to all schools during the months of April and May and talk to the physical education teachers to as their students to join," said Biju. And so rolls on Biju's quest to find the next cricketing gem from Kerala.
SAI Cricket Coaching Centre trainees in Kerala sides during 2016-17 season:
Kerala U-14: Abhi Biju,Rohan Nair, Anuraj SS, Abhishek J Nair; Kerala U-16: Anantha Krishnan J; Kerala U-19: Prem Sagar; Kerala U-22: Vaisakh Chandran, Vishweshwar Suresh, Aquib Fazal; Kerala U-25: Jithin Ramachandran, Vaisakh Chandran, Vishweshwar Suresh, Vinoop Manoharan; Kerala Ranji Trophy Team: Sachin Baby, Sanju V Samson; Kerala T20 Team: Sanju V Samson, Sachin Baby, Prasanth Padmanabhan, Raiphi Vincent Gomez.