Valthaty graduates from school of hard knocks
"Hang around for just ten balls, and the bowlers will watch you for the rest of the time." This was the text message Paul Valthaty received from cricket journalist Makarand Waingankar, who has mentored him from age 11. The sms arrived after Kings XI Punjab's match on Sunday against Pune Warriors, when Valthaty batted six deliveries before slashing aggressively to point. He'd probably forgotten the advice on Wednesday, against Chennai Super Kings, when his first ten deliveries faced had yielded three boundaries and one dropped catch. But he hung around for another 53 balls to finish unbeaten on 120, the third-highest individual score in the IPL.
Valthaty's career is a similarly unconventional story, including a decade in the wilderness after a promising start. The future had seemed bright in 2001, when he was selected for the Mumbai Ranji Trophy probables, and the following year he played for India in the Under-19 World Cup. It seemed a natural extension to his junior career, when he'd played for some of the best sides in Mumbai: Don Bosco High School, Vengsarkar Academy, Podar College, Rizvi College.
He started out as a batsman who bowled a bit, which he remains to this day, and Dilip Vengsarkar saw potential in the then 12-year old Valthaty. "He displayed great promise and scored heavily for the academy in local matches," Vengsarkar told Hindustan Times. A chance move up the order had allowed him to display his appetite for runs. "During an Under-14 game, I was asked to open, and I ended up getting 197," Valthaty said. Gradually, he built up a reputation as a prolific scorer at age-group level.
But the focus of his dreams, the Mumbai Ranji call-up, never happened. An injury under his eye against Bangladesh that cut short his World Cup stint did not help. "I took 2-3 years to get back on track," Valthaty told ESPNcricinfo. The world had moved ahead by then but he joined Air India, which has a rich cricketing tradition and played under Hrishikesh Kanitkar, a vastly experienced former India player and Ranji-winning captain with Rajasthan. Valthaty grew enough to be chosen leader whenever Kanitkar was unavailable.
Still the Mumbai call-up never arrived, save for a solitary one-dayer against Baroda in 2006. Where did he go wrong? Balwinder Sandhu, Valthaty's coach at the Vengsarkar Academy, thinks that the only thing that he could have done was to improve his shot selection. "He was always an aggressive batsman and a clean hitter. Even if he gets 30 runs, he will hit four good shots that will stay with you for a long time," Sandhu said. "I used to enjoy watching him bat. Excellent technique and thinking cricketer, but he could have worked on his shot selection."
Was it his perceived impetuosity that did him in? Sandhu pointed instead to misfortune. "One of the unlucky few players, I must say. We backed him at that time, we were convinced, but he could not get enough support from the men who matter. Such talents have to be nurtured." Sandhu cited the example of Yusuf Pathan who, despite being initially branded as a hitter, matured enough to play match-winning innings for the country. "People start criticising aggressive players for going for their shots. Such players need a lot of backing, technical as well as emotional. But times have changed. Not many want to invest nowadays in nurturing a cricketer."
But Valthaty did not fade away despite being ignored. He had no other option. "Cricket was all I knew. Any extra motivation was not needed," Valthaty said. "All other things were anyway beyond my control." The IPL brought about a revival in his fortunes, as it has for so many Indian domestic players. Valthaty got a contract with Rajasthan Royals that finally gave him an extended run in the Mumbai team, albeit the Twenty20 side. Then came the Kings XI Punjab call-up. "Abhishek Nayar recommended my name, and Michael Bevan liked what he saw." On Wednesday, as Valthaty walked off the field, he was fairly composed when he greeted his team-mates, accepting their congratulations, shaking hands. The moment of elation - the jump of joy - was reserved for Nayar.
In only his second game for his new franchise, Valthaty has already scripted an innings that has catapulted him in to the national spotlight. It has been an arduous journey but if this convoluted route leads to bigger rewards, as it has for others before him, Valthaty will accept it. Meanwhile, he will keep hanging around, regardless.
Abhishek Purohit is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo