Veni, vidi, Valthaty
A joke began to do the rounds on Twitter and on ESPNcricinfo's commentary feedback when a shy and stodgy batsman walked out with Adam Gilchrist to open Punjab's chase of 189. "Knock knock. Who's there? Valthaty. Valthaty, who? Val, thirty runs fewer would have been easier to chase." It captured the viewing public's sheer incredulity over the move. Here were the IPL's cellar-dwellers facing a mountain against the defending champions, pushing down their most successful batsman, Shaun Marsh, in favour of an unknown. That sentiment soon disappeared and, 120 runs later, was ground into the Mohali dust.
What remained was one question: Just who is Paul Valthaty? He has played only one domestic one-day game. In three previous IPL innings, he had managed scores of 5, 1 and 6. Even his ESPNcricinfo profile had an unrecognisable picture, possibly from his school days. Back in 2002, Valthaty was a member of India's Under-19 squad, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Irfan Pathan, Parthiv Patel and Ambati Rayudu. Dilip Vengsarkar, who was the manager of that team, expected big things from him but unfortunately Valthaty was struck in the eye and his career stalled.
All that changed, after 63 balls of the cleanest hitting, against an attack that was close to international standard. Valthaty's unbeaten century was among the more memorable IPL innings, one that made even the seemingly invincible MS Dhoni wilt under pressure. And it made India sit up and take note.
Gilchrist later revealed Valthaty was always one of Punjab's first-choice openers. "Paul hit some nice shots in the first match [against Pune], but unfortunately got out," Gilchrist said after the game. "He showed some talent in the warm-up games too. That was an amazing innings. I loved standing around [at the other end] and watching him go today."
Gilchrist is clearly not the batsman he once was yet the ease with which Valthaty reduced him to a spectator boggled the mind. His batting is based on the principle of getting behind the line with a half-step forward, and then hitting through it. He attacked every time Chennai's bowlers landed the ball in his half, with an audacious series of drives, clips and whips. His stand with Gilchrist yielded 61 off 5.5 overs, and set Punjab up nicely for the post-Powerplay hustle.
When the field fell back, Valthaty responded by stepping up a gear. Every time Chennai got a wicket, he counter-punched with clever boundaries. He played a couple of late-cuts, cover drives off either foot, pick-up shots through the off side and, towards the end, two delicate steers through point when the seamers landed yorkers wide of the stumps. While he was punishing the good balls, he ensured he did not waste a single poor delivery.
"In all fairness it was a belter of a track," Valthaty said later. Twice. "I am modest," he then added when prompted to bask in the glory of his accomplishment. "It was a dream-come-true for me. I believed in myself, and my team management believed in me, and it all came together perfectly today. I had started preparing two months before the IPL, and it all paid off today. The hundred is yet to sink in. I will never forget that moment, and it meant a lot to me."
The IPL is littered with flash-in-the-pan 40s and 50s, but Valthaty had taken it upon himself to see the chase through, which impressed Dhoni. "Paul batted really well," Dhoni said. "He was at his best throughout, a challenge was thrown at him and he was up to it. He went on till the end, which is very important - he did not leave it for others."
In the pre-IPL era, Valthaty would have not got another chance. India now knows who he is. It's now up to him to stay in the spotlight.
Nitin Sundar is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo