Community Coach Akash Balmiki tells the story of his journey growing up with a rugby ball by his side.
By Akash Balmiki
My name is Akash Balmiki. I am 21 years old and live in Kolkata, West Bengal. I have been raised in a simple and humble family consisting of 5 members. I have two elder brothers, mother and father. My father works as a sweeper and my mother is a home maker. I am currently a community coach for Khelo Rugby and a player for the Jungle Crows Rugby Club. From a young age my parents have taught me the importance of living happily with very basic amenities and minimal facilities. Right from the time I began to walk and run, I had a good liking towards sports, especially outdoor sports. I attended Government school in Kolkata but I could not afford continuing my education because of financial difficulties at home. The sport of rugby has made a big impact in my personal life.
I got introduced to the sport of rugby in the 2008 Jungle Crows winter camp. One of my neighbours told me about a fun-filled event that takes place at the Kolkata Maidan during the winter holidays. I did not know anything about rugby and had never seen a rugby ball in my life. The Jungle Crows winter camp was a life changing experience for me. Before the camp, I was very shy and hardly had any friends. After the camp, I had 20-30 friends and I thoroughly enjoyed their company. The winter camp assisted me to open up a bit, have fun and learn a new sport. Each day of the camp, we got yummy breakfast. The coaches were very caring and ensured that everyone had a lot of fun, ate a proper breakfast and drank lots of juice. Since the 2008 Winter Camp, I have continued to be addicted to the sport of rugby. I would attend every Jungle Crows Academy session which was initially held near the Calcutta Rangers Club. It was even more fun during the monsoons because we would all be covered in thick muck and my mother’s scolding would not hamper my enthusiasm. After all these years, my mother has also understood the role that rugby played in my upbringing.
From 2008-09 I never missed the Crows Academy which helped me to develop the core skills and techniques required to play the game of rugby. My first coach was Akhtar Sir who always emphasized on fitness, discipline, hard work, respect and being punctual for every session. The values I learnt back in 2008 have imbibed in me till this very day. All the coaches of the Jungle Crows were amazing and always pushed me to achieve my best on and off the field. In 2010, Khelo Rugby started to organize training sessions at a field barely a few metres from my house. I attended Khelo sessions from 2010-11. At the Crows academy I continued to work very hard to improve my game and physical fitness. I also realized that the food I eat played an important role in my health. I stayed away from junk food, oily food and consumed very little sugar. Till today I avoid tea or coffee. Looking at my game improvement, Paul sir gave me an opportunity to play for the Maidan Hazards, the development team of the Jungle Crows. I played for the Hazards for 2 seasons, 2012 and 2013. We had a great group of players who did exceedingly well and we even managed to defeat some seasoned teams in the Calcutta cup and other rugby tournaments which we played in.
In September 2013, I got a call from the Indian Rugby Football Union (IRFU) to attend the India camp for the U-19 Asian Championships. I was very nervous and it was the first time I was leaving my home in Kolkata to go to another place. My team mates assisted me to get my passport done in a short span of time. The India camp was very good and I made it to the Indian National U-19 rugby team. It was a huge achievement for me and I got lots of encouraging positive wishes from my team mates of the Hazards, Jungle Crows and Paul sir. The U-19 Championship in 2013 was held at Lahore, Pakistan and it will always remain a very memorable experience for me. Wearing the India jersey for the first time and listening to the national anthem being played gave me goose bumps. 2014 was the year when things were getting one notch higher and I was assuming more serious roles as a rugby player and coach.
Early in 2014, I got an offer from Paul sir to work as a community coach for the Khelo Rugby project. I loved working with children and it was a very good life opportunity for me. I took it up with full heart and till this day continue to work in the many communities of Khelo Kolkata spreading the joy of rugby. In 2014, I achieved another personal dream and milestone by making it into the Jungle Crows team. All my role models like Tudu da and Zaffar da played for the Crows and it was a dream for me to represent the Crows team. I continue to represent the Crows and have played in all tournaments for them from 2014 till date. In my first season for the Crows, we won the Howrah Rugby 7s, All India U-20 championship, Georgiadi 7s, Centenary Cup. We were also the plate winners at All-India rugby nationals and stood runner-up in the popular Calcutta Cup. In June, 2014 I made it to the senior India national team that played in the Division III 5 nation’s championship at Pakistan. We lost against a formidable Uzbekistan team in the semi-finals, 17-23.
In 2015 I got selected to take part in the 2015 UNOSDP Youth Leadership Programme at the IMG Academy at Florida, United States of America. The 13-day camp was dedicated to giving youth leaders from around the world, a practical training on the best practices in the field of sport for development and peace in order to better use the power of sport to make positive changes in their communities. The experience was very good and helped me to get more insight on how to become a better coach at Khelo Rugby.
In May 2015, I represented the India team for the Asian championship held at Tashkent, Uzbekistan. I loved this tour and Uzbekistan was a completely different experience. The country is very beautiful, the people were very warm and friendly and the food was lip smacking good. It made me realize that the real beauty about a country is the people. Uzbekistan gave me that very welcoming experience which I will always cherish. Coming back to India, we trained really hard to do well in the All-India nationals in October 2015 and were rewarded for our hard work with the plate winner’s trophy. In Feb 2016, my Jungle Crows team-mate Sarfaraz Ahmed (Tiger) and I represented the India Rugby 7s team at the Asian 7s tournament in Dubai, UAE. It was nice to have a team-mate and brother along with you on a national tour. We had a good tournament which started with a convincing win against Qatar but lost to a technically superior Chinese Taipei team.
Khelo Rugby has a cultural exchange program with the Auckland Grammar school, New Zealand. In July 2016, my colleague Harinder and I travelled to Auckland for a 21 days program at the Auckland Grammar school. New Zealand is by far the most beautiful country that I have visited and I am really thankful to the Jungle Crows for providing me with this opportunity to learn in a rugby crazy nation. I came back even more recharged and committed to sharing what I learnt with my fellow colleagues and the Khelo children.
Just over a month back, I attended my 5th India camp for the Asian 7s tournament at Doha, Qatar. The camp was held in Delhi for 3 weeks and we used to train thrice a day. We did fitness training, had Gym sessions, rugby skills training and a couple of friendly matches. Every player wishes to represent the national team. To play for the country, one has to follow important things like discipline on and off the field, respect your coach and follow his game plans. One has to also respect each team-mate and bond as a team. The tournament at Doha, Qatar was not a successful trip for the India team. We lost the first two matches and only narrowly beat Pakistan by a small margin. Doha, Qatar was a good place. I liked the food especially their shwarma’s and burgers. They have very good sports facilities, probably the best rugby pitch I have played on so far. Having good sports facilities is very vital in attracting youngsters to the sport. At the Doha 7s, I also got the opportunity to meet rugby legend Ben Gollings and have a very small but meaningful conversation with him. It was inspiring to talk even for a few minutes to such a top player and share a selfie with him!
In India, playing for the Jungle Crows, we are privileged to have a very well maintained rugby pitch in the centre of Kolkata at the Maidan. I guess a major part of why we continue to produce good players every year is because of the good facility that we have at our disposal.
For my personal growth, I am extremely grateful to Khelo Rugby. Becoming a community coach is the best thing that has happened in my life. I get to spread smiles to thousands of children which is a very nice feeling. I am also thankful to Shaila Ma’am and Rubickon English classes who painstakingly and patiently taught me verbal and written English. The ability to speak in English has improved my confidence even more. Compared to my previous international trips with the India team, in the trip to Qatar I was much more confident at immigration and striking conversations with random strangers in public.
I want to be a role model to the 100s of youth that I train in rugby on a daily basis at our Khelo Rugby communities and the Crows Academy. Being a coach is a very big responsibility as I have to keep learning new things and develop my own self in order to assist another person to do better. I strongly believe that every person is capable of achieving any goal in their life if they work hard and are sincere in their dedication towards achieving the goal. An aspiring rugby player has to put in a lot of work in improving his/her rugby skills. A player has to be very patient because good results take time to achieve. I have seen a lot of aspiring athletes take supplements and drugs to enhance their physique. It is best to stay away from these harmful chemicals. A person’s body is best built by eating natural food and a dedicated fitness regime. An athlete has to be careful of what they eat and stay away from intoxicants like alcohol and cigarettes. There are other important components that makes one a good player. One has to respect your team mates, rugby is a team sport. If you learn to play and work together as a team, then only can your team win laurels. I have literally grown up with rugby and I strongly feel that as many children as possible should have the chance to grow up with rugby.