A few minutes after savouring the Champions Trophy the other night in Thrissur, K.R. Nikhil stood near the shining prize with a mischievous smile.

The KSEB basketball player was curious to know whether he was taller than the multi-layered trophy his team had just won to emerge as Kerala’s champion club after a three-year break.

A little later, he smiled again, this time in relief. “I’m taller,” he said.

Nikhil is just a shade over five feet but the young ball handler has taken Kerala basketball by storm.

“He is the best find in recent years,” said the KSEB coach P. Venugopal, after Nikhil played a big role in his team’s triumph. “He has a solid combination of speed and shooting skills, in fact his shooting average is 90 per cent.”

Quality player

P.C. Antony, a former coach of Thrissur’s Sree Kerala Varma College, which has given the country some of its best players, including former Asian All Star Jayashanker Menon, feels Nikhil is the best ball handler to emerge after former international Sunny Thomas.

“We’ve not seen a player like Nikhil in the last 10 years or so. We have had top quality ball handlers like C.V. Sunny and Sunny Thomas (also a Kerala Varma College product). Both played for India, both were very fast and shrewd and I feel Nikhil is of the same quality.”

Antony should know.

He has seen Nikhil, playing for Thiruvananthapuram’s Mar Ivanios College last year, inflict some painful defeats on Sree Kerala Varma College. “He bagged the best player award in four or five inter-collegiate tournaments last year and Mar Ivanios won titles mainly because of him,” said Antony.

Smart brain

“He may not be tall but he uses his brain smartly, his balance, control and timing are all brilliant. He is also a very good outside shooter, he can come up with three-pointers at crucial stages. He is a good rebounder too,” said Antony, now the coach of Aluva’s St. Xavier’s College.

With his fast, twisty runs through the defence, faking moves and naughty bounce passes, Nikhil offers a lovely treat to the spectators but is a big worry for the rival team. With 22 points, he was the top scorer and the star of KSEB’s stunning victory over BSNL, last year’s runner-up, in the league phase which laid the foundation for the telecom side’s triumph in the final.

Nikhil is a product of the Cherupushpam School in Kannur’s Chandanakampara, a leading basketball nursery in the State. “We have just basketball there, nothing else, so you concentrate on the game a lot,” he said.

KSEB was quick to notice Nikhil’s stunning performances when he played for Mar Ivanios College and soon took him in.

Priority sport

“Basketball is a priority sport at the KSEB and we owe our success to our Chairman Rajeev Sadanandan. Last year, we recruited three new players and this year, we have taken two, including Nikhil,” said Venugopal.

“This is the beginning of our new series in basketball. We are now Kerala’s champion club, now we want to take on the bigger teams like ONGC and Chennai’s IOB.”

Nikhil sure will relish the challenge.

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