Pune City keeper Vishal Kaith inspired by Petr Cech's 'sense of calm'
Vishal Kaith is a soft-spoken young man. You strain to hear him when sitting across a table, and he apologises if he has to repeat himself.
So how does Kaith, 21, transform into the goalkeeper he needs to be when protecting the posts for FC Pune City during the Indian Super League (ISL), where he has been one of the best this season?
"In the game, you have to be different. You have to command the defence," he says. "I used to face this problem earlier, and it still happens sometimes, but I have improved on it. Coaches also explain that sometimes it is the duty of the goalkeeper to take control and even shout at the other members of the team."
Kaith has been one of the success stories of the ISL - his record of six clean sheets in 12 games is only bettered by veteran Subrata Pal, who has seven -- though it should have come as no surprise on the back of his I-League last year with Shillong Lajong. Little wonder Pune retained him as their only player ahead of the ISL draft last year -- Kaith's former India U-19 teammate Ashique Kuruniyan graduated from the academy team and had never turned out for his club before this season.
"It [retention] was a great feeling. It meant the team had faith in me and felt that I should stay and contribute to the team," says Kaith. He admits to never having had any ambitions of making it big when he started with football at the sports hostel in Rohru, Himachal Pradesh. "There have been footballers from Himachal, but never one who played at a very high level. I liked playing the game and I used to get distracted from studies quite easily. That's why my parents encouraged me to get into football. The coach at the hostel made me keep because the senior goalkeeper was about to graduate."
Graduation to higher honours came fast for Kaith, first with India's U-16 and U-19 teams, and then his first professional contract with Lajong in 2014-15. Kaith says he went to Shillong simply because the club had a reputation for backing young players, and fitting in didn't require much of an effort.
"Ours was a team of youngsters. We had been playing together since our India U-16 days, and they were all good friends of mine," says Kaith, who was with Pune in ISL 2016 but spent most of it on the bench. "The benefit of going back to Lajong after training so hard in the ISL was that I could implement all that I learnt. Game time is vital, because you can only improve from the experience of being in match situations."
This season began poorly for Pune, losing 3-2 at home to Delhi, and Kaith first started in goal in a 1-0 defeat to Chennaiyin in December. With time, though, he feels his reading has improved and his decision-making has gotten better. His personal favourite from this season was away to FC Goa in December -- Goa's frontline of Coro and Manuel Lanzarote together inspired 14 goal attempts, and Kaith's efforts to thwart them included a triple-save, deflecting a Coro effort, recovering to block Brandon Fernandes, and then saving a shot on the rebound by Manuel Arana. Pune held out for the first 70 minutes, and then Emiliano Alfaro scored twice to deliver a 2-0 win.
Kaith's 2017 form was rewarded with an India call-up from Stephen Constantine, named substitute for the friendly against St Kitts & Nevis in August, and Kaith looks forward to more opportunities as India build up to the 2019 Asian Cup. "If there's competition between goalkeepers, it spurs you on. You know you have to improve and keep outperforming the guys ahead of you. Whenever I meet them, Subrata bhai and Gurpreet bhai always tell me to work hard," says Kaith, who admires Petr Cech for his "simple" game, one where he "doesn't take risks" and plays with "a sense of calm".
What about his long-term goals?
"ISL yaa...? (In the ISL or in general?)" he asks politely.
"First, I need to keep improving. And then become the best in India.".