Valthaty vaults to fame

Valthaty during his scintillating, unbeaten 120 against Chennai Super Kings.-AKHILESH KUMAR

Paul Valthaty's blitzkrieg against Chennai Super Kings at Mohali was the talking point among the cricket fans. This talented Kings XI Punjab player has overcome a career-threatening eye-injury with aplomb. By S. Dinakar.

When darkness threatened to consume him, Paul Valthaty saw motes of light. His tale from oblivion to centre-stage is a spirit-lifting one. The motif has been self-belief.

Valthaty kept the fire within burning during times that would have tested his resolve.

This soft-spoken 27-year-old hogged the limelight at Mohali. Playing for Kings XI Punjab against Chennai Super Kings, Valthaty conquered with his bat-speed, power and balance. The fluidity of his stroke-play is hard to miss.

The marauder was also able to harness the angles and find the gaps; his match-winning unbeaten 120 was dotted with 19 boundaries. The opener was also the finisher.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni's tactics, for once, did not work. Even as the arena was suffused with varying emotions, Valthaty displayed equanimity.

Once again, the Indian Premier League has thrown up an unexpected hero. The IPL does provide a stage for the lesser names to force their way into the limelight.

Valthaty made a conscious attempt to forget the incredible display that conquered CSK and focussed on the next match — an away game against Deccan Chargers in Hyderabad.

Valthaty was once again the game changer. He scalped four with his medium pace — his slower ball is well concealed — and then launched into the Chargers attack with the legendary Adam Gilchrist for a rousing innings of 75.

Several elements of his batsmanship shone. His down swing is so good that Valthaty was able to smash the ball in the ‘V.' He also cut, pulled and swept. His five sixes were clinical, cleanly struck blows.

Valthaty's methods are quite unique. A short man, he is able to stretch his legs fully and get very low down for the slog sweeps. He gets under the ball in a flash and then propels the sphere past the ropes.

Before his life-changing innings against CSK, Valthaty received a text message from senior cricket writer and mentor, Makarand Waingankar. It read, “Hang around for the first 10 balls, rest of the time the bowlers will be watching you.”

And before his blitzkrieg against Deccan Chargers, Makarand sent him another message that said “All you have to do is to see off the first four overs.”

Once again, Valthaty followed his mentor's words of wisdom and emerged smiling at the end of it all.

Says Makarand, “I first saw him as a 11-year-old boy when he joined the ELF-Vengsarkar Cricket Academy. He told me, ‘I am a fast bowler.' But both Vengsarkar and me could see that this boy had immense talent with the bat.”

Valthaty was soon sending the fielders on a leather hunt. “He studied in Don Bosco, Borivilli and boys from the other teams feared him. A total of 120 would be considered good for a team at that level but Valthaty would get his personal hundred in no time. His back leg position was ideal and he was able to create the gaps,” remembers Makarand.

Valthaty's rise was stunning. He was in the reserves of the Mumbai Ranji Trophy team and was a part of the India team for the under-19 World Cup in New Zealand in 2002.

Fate played its hand. During the competition, Valthaty was struck a grievous blow under the left eye by a short lifting delivery. His career dipped and he was off cricket for nearly two years.

Says Makarand, “The recovery of vision is a slow process. But when he picked up the bat again, he faced daunting problems.”

Makarand consulted Tiger Pataudi, who, with just one eye, scripted a remarkable Indian career. “Pataudi told me that he saw two balls and played the inside ball. But this was easier said than done.”

Gradually Valthaty was on the cricketing path again but found it hard to break into the Mumbai side. For all his efforts, he received a solitary one-day game in 2006. Soon, he was back in the wilderness.

Says Makarand, “In Mumbai cricket, you need to bat for at least two full sessions to be called a batsman. Given that mindset, someone such as Valthaty was bound to lose out. I would even stick my neck out and say somebody like Sehwag might not have received an opportunity in Mumbai. The thinking is different. There is a lot of emphasis on technique and innings building attributes.”

As Makarand reveals, Valthaty did not help his own cause either with faulty shot selection. “Given his natural ability, there is no need to manufacture shots. I was apprehensive. Several talented cricketers had fallen by the wayside. Shahid Akbar is a case in point.”

A solid family background — Valthaty's father is an engineer while his mother is a doctor — guided the cricketer's thought process. “He does not get excited. He reads the game well and will make a good captain one day,” says Makarand.

Valthaty has his roots in Andhra Pradesh.

Former India captain Nari Contractor was the West Zone head of TDRO when he first sighted Valthaty. “He was a very talented lad. We all thought highly of him. He had this natural ability to strike the ball with telling effect.”

Himself a victim of a brutal short-pitched delivery — he was struck on the head and underwent a life-saving surgery — from fierce West Indian fast bowler Charlie Griffith in Barbados in 1962, Contractor has seen it all.

He comprehends that coming back from career threatening injuries can make extreme demands on the mind and body. The scars on a cricketer's psyche do not go away easily.

Contractor is disappointed that in all these years, Valthaty got just one one-day game (in 2006) and some twenty20 matches for Mumbai. And he received a look-in for the Twenty20 side only after he was signed up by Rajastan Royals in 2009.

Says Contractor, “The Mumbai selectors never really gave him a chance. Valthaty has so many things going for me. He is a free-flowing right-hander, never struggles, and runs come to him. But I heard negative remarks about him after his eye injury such as ‘he is no longer as good' or ‘he has lost it.' ”

Contractor adds, “Valthaty is a phenomenal player. But if the selectors are only looking at individual scores and not at a youngster's potential then we could well have statisticians instead of selectors. In fact I had a fight with one of the selectors who believed in only scores.”

The former India captain says, “I said several years back that Valthaty is the most promising Mumbai cricketer. I am not saying it now after he has made it big in IPL. He has a calm head, reads the game well and will make a good captain some day.” As a stand-in captain for Air India, Velthaty has been impressive.

The resurgence of Valthaty has reopened an old debate vis a vis potential and numbers. Impact players have to be nursed and given confidence. When they come good, they win matches.