On PAUL VALTHATY: “Breaking the shackles of selection bias” –Two Essays

Makarand Waingankar,  articles from 21 April et seq in The Hindu and Mid-Day

“… for me Paul Valthaty of Kings XI Punjab has been the surprise hero so far in this IPL edition. He is a cut above the rest,” Sangakarra in BBC nes item yesterday.

ONE:  Valthaty brings selectors’ role under scrutiny

Paul Valthaty’s Indian Premier League showing for King’s XI Punjab makes one wonder what stopped the selectors from picking him for Mumbai in first-class cricket An average Mumbai cricket lover knows the names of talented young cricketers in the city. Isn’t it an irony then that they ask ‘Paul who,’ after Paul Valthaty’s exploits in the Indian Premier League? It’s said a player has to have three Ds – dedication, devotion and discipline, ” but one may say he has to have three Ts ” talent, temperament and tenacity ” as well.
 What Valthaty possessed was alphabet T till a Bangladeshi bowler on an under-prepared pitch in Auckland hit his eye through the visor of his helmet in an Under-19 World Cup match in 2002.  One could see a small hole in his right eyelid. He did start playing after eight months, but could sight the ball properly only two years later when he was 22!

The two vital years that he lost began to haunt him. The healing process of a soft area takes time. Valthaty was reconciled to the fact that no matter what he did, it would take time to heal. But the followers of the game didn’t know the gravity of his injury, nor did anyone think of enquiring about his recovery.

He was part of Dilip Vengsarkar’s academy for a decade and played only for Fort Vijay club from the age of 16 till last season. At both places, he was encouraged by his teammates, especially during those two years. The technical brilliance backed by unflinching temperament that Valthaty showed in the last week and a half vindicates Vengsarkar’s judgment about his class. The former India captain was instrumental in picking Valthaty for the Under-19 World Cup though the latter hadn’t performed in trial matches.

Why hasn’t Valthaty played Ranji Trophy for Mumbai needs to be explained by the selectors. The point is, if only performance and not talent is the criteria, do we need experienced paid selectors? Surely a group of statisticians can select the team.

The principle of Mumbai batsmanship is to grind the opposition and aim for a three-digit score. But when a genuine strokeplayer keeps timing the ball like Sandeep Patil used to do, a question is asked, whether he will survive against quality opposition. And that’s how Patil missed the 1979 World Cup.

Valthaty presents a good case study. Should he conform to the principle of Mumbai batsmanship or play his natural game? Did Sanath Jayasuriya and Virender Sehwag change their approach to batting when they were picked? No. They entertained cricket lovers.

The best compliment to Valthaty was paid by Bishan Singh Bedi, who said, “He is  technically a very organised player, who knows what he is doing. He gets into a position that allows him to play his shots. He plays on the merit of the ball and backs his instinct and that to me is very important.”

Tiger Pataudi, who also suffered an eye injury, touches on the psychological aspect. “There were several moments when I was about to give up because I kept getting out for no apparent reason. Nobody with an eye injury would have batted the way young Valthaty did,” said Pataudi.

Valthaty fought hard and never ever thought of giving up the game he loved most. This season, despite being second highest scorer for Mumbai in the West Zone T20 league, Valthaty was dropped for the knockout round!  It’s time the men who     matter got their thought process right. Vijay Manjrekar once said: “If we give undue importance to performance and not talent, Mumbai will produce first-class batsmen of second-class bowling in a third-class tournament.” Once talent is identified, it’s the grooming process that matters. Sadly, that process in Mumbai cricket is missing.

TWO: “Breaking the shackles of selection bias”

 The Indian Premier League has been unearthing talented cricketers in each edition. It might be the shortest format of the game but talent just needs a platform and everyone from Yusuf Pathan, Ravindra Jadeja, Manish Pandey to Paul Valthaty have grabbed the opportunity to showcase what they possess.

It’s to the credit of these cricketers that they broke the shackles of selection bias and showed to the world that one can’t suppress talent for a long time. The assessment of talent is based on many factors but one common factor is the ability to tackle a situation which will increase the percentage of winning matches. And for that to happen, a player has to back his strengths. It’s the mental make-up of a player that stands out when dealing with crisis.

Valthaty exhibited it. More than anyone else it is the average Mumbaikar who is surprised to see Valthaty making international bowlers look mediocre. He always had it in him until a ball during the under-19 World Cup match in 2002 inNew Zealandhit his right eyelid and pierced a small hole thereby disturbing his vision. It was a serious injury and he underwent an operation inNew Zealand.

Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, who suffered an eye injury, says: “I suspect it’s psychological with young Paul but a few more good knocks will boost his confidence. There were several moments when I was about to give up the game because for no apparent reason I was getting out. All I can say is nobody with (old) eye injury could have batted the way Paul did.”

The boy who had from the age of 11 played for Vengsarkar’s academy and from age of 16 played only for Vijay Merchant’s 100-year-old Fort Vijay Club, couldn’t play for two vital years till 22 because he couldn’t sight the ball properly. It was a traumatic experience but his teammates in both the places backed him all the time. And at no stage did Valthaty lose hope.

Here is a case of a batsman with immense talent not getting recognition from the State selectors. When one gives undue importance to performance at the cost of talent, good players suffer. If performance is the only criteria at the State level, surely statisticians could select the team instead of experienced selectors.

Valthaty has thoroughly exposed the selection process in the country. Despite doing well in the West Zone T20 league tournament this season (he was the second highest scorer for Mumbai) he wasn’t picked for the knockout in the squad of 15! And within a couple of months he is impressive with both bat and ball.

It seems that most of the IPL coaches missed what the Kings XI Punjab coach, Michael Bevan, saw. The point is he made an effort to assess the boy’s talent during trials. Other coaches either chose to write him off as history or didn’t want to watch as they had made up their minds after going through his scores.

Valthaty says his captain Gilchrist keeps reminding him to back his strengths, something which Indian coaches or captains don’t do. ‘Perform or go home’ is the Indian mantra. Cricket is nothing but confidence and in Valthaty’s case, it seems, he has been given the licence by Gilchrist and Bevan to enjoy the game.

At the moment it’s the Influential People’s League with some players being just about average. It would serve Indian cricket better if this gets converted into Impressive Players’ League.

Apart from being a cricket writer, Makarand Waingankar is involved in cricket development. He was chief coordinator of the Bombay Cricket Association-Mafatlal Bowling Scheme spearheaded by Frank Tyson in the early 1990s. Later, he was involved in the BCCI’s Talent Resource Development scheme



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