Unmukt Chand: Under-19 successes and over-19 failures

Unmukt Chand, winner of U-19 World Cup, retraces the steps of an up and down journey after going unsold at IPL auction.

Written by Nihal Koshie | Updated: April 9, 2017 8:25 am
Unmukt Chand, IPL, Indian premier league, IPL 2017, IPL match, cricket, IPL players, IPL 2017 players under -19 players, Vijay hazare, lost names, junior world cup, cricket, sport, sports news, indian express news Unmukt Chand at his Mayur Vihar residence in East Delhi. (Source: Express photo by Praveen Khanna)

Unmukt Chand wrote a book before his serious cricketing journey had even begun. Looking back at the haste with which he rushed headlong into success as a Junior World Cup winner, the 24-year-old retraces the steps of an up and down journey speaking to The Indian Express.

* When I was a kid, it so happened that I loved holding the bat in my hands and hitting the ball as far as I could. It was fun. At that point I had no aim, no goal, no ambitions. I was just crazy about cricket…Now when I look back at those days, I feel like my passion, while it is still there, has been diluted by things that come with adult life. Now I have to worry about my team, my personal performance, letting my country down… Sometimes it is hard to find the core passion I began with.

The Roshanara Club grounds are nestled away from the hustle and bustle of North Delhi. The colonial era setting is an oasis of shade as the long shadows of giant trees provide shelter from the harsh sun. The chirping of birds, scampering of squirrels and a cool breeze sweeping through the foliage are relaxing.

The ground is a venue for a club tournament which sees the participation of the second-tier players from Delhi and nearby districts. Mohit Ahlawat, the talk of the maidans after his triple hundred in a local T20 game on a miniature ground, is one of the regulars at the Roshanara T20 tournament. But he is not the star attraction today.

The LB Shastri Cricket Club is also fielding Unmukt Chand, the India Under-19 skipper who brought home the junior World Cup in 2012. If his stars had aligned better or if he had the weight of runs behind him, Unmukt would have been in Orissa representing Delhi in the domestic one-day tournament, the Vijay Hazare Trophy. At the start of the season the 24-year-old had captained the state side after Gautam Gambhir had been recalled to the Test team. A string of underwhelming scores in Ranji Trophy and the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 tournament had convinced the selectors and coach KP Bhaskar that it was time to give the ‘kid a wake-up call’.

The timing of the axe was ill-timed as it happened on the eve of the Indian Premier League auction. Unmukt had been released by Mumbai Indians (the player says he put in the request because of lack of match time) but being shunted out of the state team didn’t do him any favours when the hammer went down at the auction. He went unsold.

It was the final nail in the coffin but bigger ones had been hammered in a few months ago. Unmukt was excluded from the India A tour to Australia. The last time the ‘A’ team played a one-day series Unmukt had captained the side.

The toss is delayed because the wicket is sun-drying at the Roshanara so Unmukt settles down on one of the plastic chairs as the interview begins. He doesn’t want to be photographed in the laal jersey so makes a request to postpone the photo-shoot. He seems rather finicky for a cricketer whose career is at crossroads / downward spiral. (Seriously, he is conscious of not looking good in red, you wonder?). It’s the only time he really makes a fuss. He is chatty and ready to talk – a good thing for a story.

“The IPL is important but I am more disappointed with the Delhi scene,” Unmukt says. A couple of days later, Unmukt was recalled after Delhi floundered in the Vijay Hazare. He made 64 and 78 but the earlier losses hurt Delhi and the season wound down tamely, for the team and Unmukt.

There was an altercation between the coach Bhaskar and Gambhir, an inquiry commission has been set-up at the end of a bitter and disappointing 2016-17 season. Controversy and alleged selection bias are par for the course in Delhi and players have gone onto play for India despite the system. Virat Kohli has done it in the past and Rishabh Pant played a T20 for India in February after scoring 972 runs in Ranji Trophy.

Unmukt is not living in a fool’s paradise and is aware he has to arrest the slide – IPL contract or no IPL contract.

“IPL is very important because so many players have played for the country because of the IPL. But somehow, I have not been that lucky. And then part of the fact is that I have not played too many games together and of course I could not do well in the chances I got. So my fault as well. Last year for Mumbai I got one game,” Unmukt says.

Even during his stint with Rajasthan Royals, Unmukt didn’t get a long rope. For a young cricketer all the money in the world can count for nothing if you end up sitting on the bench rather than playing in the IPL.

“See, from the outside IPL looks good. But if you are not playing then it is very frustrating, because you are thinking that you will get a chance and when you don’t it is very frustrating. In the first year or so it is good because you are sharing the dressing room with legends and big players but after a while you know what the IPL is about. You have spoken to so many senior players in the dressing room. You just want to play games and when you don’t get a chance it (the frustration) does carry on for the next few months as well. You feel like the balance is going.”

Till a couple of seasons ago Unmukt was one of the poster boys of Indian cricket, the next big star who was poised to make the leap from junior to senior cricket seamlessly. Now he will be packing his bags and heading to Colne Cricket Club in Lancashire league even as the auditions for India’s next T20 superstar begin at the IPL.

“Somehow I feel now it is good I am not playing the IPL this year because it will give me time to work on my game and it will not feel like I am running here and there. A year does not make a difference in terms of the whole picture. I think it is a long way to go for me. Two setbacks back to back – dropped from the Delhi ODI squad and being unsold in the IPL auction – was a big shock for me. But the next day I woke up and it was all fine. For a young cricketer it is important not to put your self-worth on the IPL”

******

* The celebrations began as soon as we landed in Mumbai. We could hear the drumbeats even before stepping out of the Mumbai airport… Media guys climbing over each other to take our pictures, Cops all round us. Unknown people coming to us to shake our hands… The way I was welcomed at the Delhi airport and then taken to my home in an open cart, down the same road I had trodden since my childhood but now with a red carpet… Now it feels like a dream, but I know it actually happened. We had won the World Cup!

In the August of 2012 life was a beach for Unmukt. He had scored a century in the final of the Under-19 World Cup as India beat Australia by six wickets and with 14 balls to spare. In the quarterfinals, Unmukt’s team had done what all Indian teams are expected to do in a World Cup – beat Pakistan. The Colts were the toast of the nation and Unmukt, the son of school teachers, was the wonder-kid.

Soon ad-men and player management representatives made a beeline to sign him. Two multinational beverage companies were trying to outbid each other to get Unmukt on board. Everyone, including Unmukt, believed that he would not just knock on the doors of the senior Indian team but walk right in.

The advertisers were selling dreams. In a Pepsi commercial from that time, Unmukt after sneaking into the ‘senior dressing room’ gets away with a wisecrack when admonished by MS Dhoni for thinking he has already become one of the boys. “Farak toh hai sir…’ he starts off sheepishly before delivering the punchline. “Farak yeh hai ki main aap logon ke team mein abhi aa sakta hoon. Par aap sir log mere team mein kabhi nahi aa sakte.” The ad was seen as ‘cool’ but it came back to bite Unmukt.

Ask Unmukt now what he thinks when looking back at this particular ad. “Tab se ruk gaya hoon,” Unmukt laughs.

He did get his breaks after the Under-19 World Cup triumph. His was the first name to be jotted down when India A teams were picked. He captained the ‘A’ side. He was a regular in the Delhi team across formats and he was an IPL star. Following the junior World Cup win, he scored a match-winning century in the Vijay Hazare final. Back to back fifties in the semifinal and final of the Deodhar Trophy enhanced his reputation as a big-match player. Last year, he became the first Indian player to score three T20 centuries in domestic cricket.

But for every hundred he scored, there were others outscoring him. The KL Rahuls, Shreyas Iyers and Kedar Jadhavs were scoring truckloads of runs in first-class cricket. Unmukt’s eight first-class hundreds over six years didn’t match-up. He didn’t have a breakthrough season in limited overs cricket either.

For all his talent, Unmukt had a tendency to fritter away starts, play too many shots. The pressure of expectation too weighed down on him. Kohli, a Delhi-boy like him, had won the junior World Cup too and Unmukt was expected to follow in his footsteps.

“People thought that as I had won the World Cup, the next step was for me to play for the Indian team. But it does not happen like that. Even I got a little carried away and tried to score big runs every time I batted. I remember just after the junior World Cup I went to New Zealand and when I was on 50, I was thinking of scoring a hundred. I didn’t have a good season that year. And of course there were the comparisons with Kohli. He must have had his own struggles, but the way he is playing right now nothing looks bad. His style is different and my style is different, you can’t compare two people.”

When Unmukt started plateauing it was his mentor, his uncle Sundar Chand Thakur who stepped in. The former army-man turned journalist felt that the distractions off the field needed to be eliminated.

“I had advised Unmukt that he needs to stop endorsing products for a while. This was about two years ago. He was selling products but the runs were not coming. I felt that he was distracted. And it was understandable. If someone who had just turned 20 was not carried away by all the adulation it would have been unnatural. So I told him, ‘we will not do any more endorsements’,” Thakur says.

Unmukt says his bachpana — immaturity — perhaps got the better of him.

“I come from a humble background so these things didn’t affect me really. But I guess maturity was a little less compared to now. Your roots are very important but somehow, unknowingly, you attach importance to those things. You can’t attach too much importance to fame. It is temporary,” Unmukt says, looking back at the time when he was the toast of the cricketing world.

After a point even the autograph hunters, a regular sighting at domestic matches Unmukt played in, started to look the other way. “I think that is when it really hit him,” says uncle Thakur.

The cricketer is wiser for the experience. “Over the past couple of years I have realised that people who were my well-wishers are not supporting me anymore. But this is the real world and I can’t get affected by how someone’s attitude towards me has changed. Life has come a full circle for me. I have seen what most cricketers see during their entire career in just four years. I am thankful for that. The ups and down have happened to me by the age of 23. Sometimes when you hit rock bottom there are more chances of seeing the light as well”

******

* I hope someday I will again write a book narrating my experience of winning the World Cup for all of you. Obviously, that will not be the Under-19 World Cup.

Unmukt will have to acclimatise to the weather (and the seamer-friendly conditions) in Colne. According to Accuweather, it will be 12 degrees centigrade in Colne and rainy in early May when Unmukt reaches North-West England. He will be flying in from the scorching summer that has set in early in Delhi. In addition to playing for Colne Cricket Club he will also have to coach the age-groups teams. Overseas players have to fend for themselves when playing league cricket in England. They have to do their own laundry, cook and clean – a different world from the glitzy and glamorous IPL.

“I think 80 per cent of the ego is gone, for Unmukt and me. It might have been there before,” Thakur says. Earlier the uncle would push his nephew, during phone conversations and over email, to score over 1,000 runs in a Ranji Trophy season. “I will never give him such a target again. That is not the way to go about it.”

In hindsight, Unmukt tried to do too many things too soon off the field. He had an overkill of mental gurus and it perhaps cluttered his mind, his uncle feels. At 20, he published a book.

“I advised him to write a diary and then compile a book. I guess it was too early to write a book. India mein boom ke sath cricket mein aana is not a good idea. If you don’t score runs, then people will be quick to write you off. They will start saying yeh India kya khelega?”

There were a couple of occasions when Unmukt believed he was on the cusp of breaking into the team. He had made 79 not out and 101 while playing for India A against the touring West Indies. There was a buzz that he would be picked for the fourth ODI in Dharamsala. However, the visitors pulled out of the match and tour because of a pay dispute with their home board. Hope floated again when he top-scored in the Deodhar Trophy last season but didn’t make the cut when MS Dhoni led a second-string team to Zimbabwe.

“It becomes very frustrating when you have performed and are expecting a call but it never comes,” Thakur says while picking instances when Unmukt was upset. “But I can tell you one thing for sure. Unmukt’s belief has not gone. I see in him the passion for the game and the setbacks have helped him clear his mind. He will be able to play with freedom now. There is this shot over cover which he used to play so elegantly. I have told him that I want to see him play that shot again.”

Sanjay Bharadwaj of the LB Shastri Cricket Club, where Unmukt trains, points to his consecutive fifties on being recalled to the Delhi squad after being dropped for the Vijay Hazare Trophy. “He is mentally very strong. I would even say he is an intellectual cricketer. He is well read and that is an advantage as he knows how to put things in perspective and has the mental maturity to accept the fact that he has taken two steps back. Just give him some time. Yeh toh lambi race ka ghoda hai. Abhi chhalang lagayega,” Bharadwaj believes.

Unmukt’s point of view is that the setbacks have come as a blessing in disguise. “You need time for yourself, to assess your game. Over the past two-to-three years, I have not got time for myself. I have been playing local tournaments, playing the game just for the sheer love of it without any pressure, training in the nets without thinking about my next big score. Now, I feel like I have got back my school days.”

Unmukt’s innings is cut short during the club match of the Roshanara T20 tournament. He walks back, sits in the players’ tent for a while and gets back to finish the interview. “Where were we?” he asks with a sense of detached calmness.

Excerpts from My Journey to the World Cup. The Sky is the Limit by Unmukt Chand; published by Penguin India

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