x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Indian cricket's also-rans

More than a decade after he had excited some of the Mumbai old-timers with his shot-making ability, Paul Valthaty saw his name up in lights. He was at least guaranteed 15 minutes of fame. Valthaty's story is a reminder that for every Sachin Tendulkar, there are dozens that cannot stay the course.

On Wednesday night, most cricket watchers in India, and quite a few around the world, were asking the question: Paul who?

There had been incredulous stares when Adam Gilchrist decided to open the Kings XI Punjab innings with himself and an unheralded right-hander.

The target was 189, and it seemed that only a Gilchrist special could save his team from a second successive Indian Premier League (IPL) defeat.

The Kings XI captain made 19 from 15 balls. His partner finished unbeaten on 120 from 63 balls.

More than a decade after he had excited some of the Mumbai old-timers with his shot-making ability, Paul Valthaty saw his name up in lights.

He was at least guaranteed 15 minutes of fame.

Valthaty's story is a reminder that for every Sachin Tendulkar, there are dozens that cannot stay the course.

His great friend, Vinod Kambli, averaged 54 from his 17 Tests, but after a harrowing examination at the hands of the West Indian pace bowlers in 1994/95, he was pushed to the fringes. He played his last Test at the age of 23.

The generation before Tendulkar had Maninder Singh, a left-arm spinner once seen as the heir apparent to Bishan Singh Bedi, and Laxman Sivaramakrishan, a leg-spinner best remembered for 19 wickets in his first two home Tests (against England) and a gorgeous leg break that had Pakistan's Javed Miandad stumped in the final of the World Championship of Cricket in 1985.

Sivaramakrishan played his last Test at 20 and wasn't seen in one-day colours after his 22nd birthday.

The man who pulled off the stumping, Sadanand Viswanath, too had a similar fate, a career that was derailed by drink and depression caused by the death of his parents.

Maninder lasted a while longer, suffering the yips in his early 20s, but coming back a few years later before being dumped for a new wave led by Anil Kumble.

Only fleeting images remain of their talent, and it is tempting to wonder how much more they might have achieved with a Gary Kirsten or Paddy Upton to put an arm around the shoulder.

"People said I was lacking in discipline, attitude and determination," said Kambli, when I last spoke to him. "How would I have made [Test] double-hundreds without those qualities? I couldn't even afford a bat.

"There was no money to travel to play cricket. Whatever I achieved, I owe it to my coach, Ramakant Achrekar.

"He used to give me money, even bought my train pass. The travel was the worst part. I used to go from my place in Kanjurmarg to Shivaji Park or wherever in such crowded trains. I used to leave home at five in the morning and get back home at 1am."

At the turn of the millennium, Valthaty was on the cusp of making it big.

Mumbai's selectors were watching and in 2002, he was part of an Under 19 World Cup squad that included the likes of wicketkeeper Parthiv Patel - who made his India debut, mere months later - and Irfan Pathan, the medium pacer. Valthaty started the tournament with a half-century against Canada and though he failed with the bat against South Africa, his catch to dismiss Hashim Amla - Graeme Smith, Davey Jacobs and Ryan McLaren were also part of the team - was pivotal to India defending a modest total.

Then, a huge setback. A game against Bangladesh that India were supposed to win comfortably, and a delivery that took off from a length to strike him under the eye.

India lost, and would bow out in the semi-final.

Valthaty's tournament was over, and his career on hold for the foreseeable future.

It took him more than four years to finally get hold of the cherished Mumbai cap. But a one-day game against Baroda was all he would play.

The next time he surfaced, it was with the Rajasthan Royals in the IPL last season. Having made little impact, he was moved on.

But for Abhishek Nayar, the all-rounder who knew him from the days of struggle in Mumbai, it is doubtful whether Kings XI would have taken a chance on him.

But they did, and Valthaty, at the age of 27, has an opportunity to resurrect what was once a richly promising career.

Sports fans see the fame and the adulation. They seldom see the heartache.

For every Ryan Giggs, there is a Lee Sharpe, who failed to live up to his potential and left Manchester United in his mid-twenties after winning eight caps for England.

For every Lionel Messi, there's a Nii Odartey Lamptey, the Ghanaian was Player of the Tournament at the Under 17 World Cup in 1991, ahead of Juan Sebastian Veron and Alessandro del Piero. Pele reckoned he might be the next big thing.

But after brief spells of success in Belgium, Netherlands and England, he faded away, wandering the world as an itinerant footballer before settling down to breed cattle on the outskirts of Accra.

For prodigies, so thin are the margins between success and failure, between triumph and despair.