By Navneet Mundhra
India’s Under-19 team recently won the Quadrangular ODI series held in Australia where they thrashed the host Australia by seven wickets in the final to lift the coveted trophy. The chief architect of the glory was their captain, Unmukt Chand, who led from the front and cracked 94 runs in the semi-final against England and followed it up with coruscating century in the final against Australia as he remained unbeaten on 112. He faced the Australia’s new pace sensation Pat Cummins with panache and clouted him for a couple of sixes in the final. Chand bagged Man-of-the-Match award in both semi-final and final for his barnstorming exploits with bat and inspirational leadership.
The magnificent victory in Australia is yet another feather in Chand’s cap as he had led India to the victory last year over Sri Lanka in the final of Quadrangular tournament which took place in India. He also rattled up 336 runs at an average of 67.20, including one hundred and two half-centuries. He was the second highest run-getter of the tournament, behind Australia’s Cameron Bancroft.
He made his First-Class debut in 2010-2011 and earned the spurs by smashing 400 runs at a robust average of 57.14. His first First-Class century came against Railways on a treacherous pitch. Playing only in his fourth match, he exhibited impenetrable defence combined with oodles of dash. On a seaming wicket, where his experienced team-mates bit the dust one after another; he held his own and unleashed a scintillating innings of 151 (out of team’s total of 290) which was embellished with 19 boundaries and two sixes.
Unmukt is earmarked as the next big thing of Indian cricket as history tells us that Under-19 captains, usually, go on to represent India and do exceedingly well at an international level - Yuvraj Singh and Virat Kohli are shining examples. Comparisons are already drawn with his Delhi team-mate, Virat Kohli, who is currently the toast of the town. Both Kohli and Chand represent the current brand of cricketers Delhi is producing; dazzling and audacious on the field while oozing confidence and spark off the field.
Navneet Mundhra catches up with Unmukt Chand for an exclusive interview:
CricketCountry (CC): When did you start playing cricket? How has been your journey so far in cricket to become the captain of U-19 Indian team?
Unmukt Chand (UC): I started playing cricket when I was six. My uncle, Sunder Chand Thakur, was instrumental in motivating and guiding me when I was a kid. He injected self-belief in me that I have the trappings to become a fine cricketer one day. My coach Sanjay Bhardwaj, who is also the coach of Gautam Gambhir, has made tremendous contribution in my evolution as a batsman.
Contrary to popular belief, nothing has come easy to me. I had to go through a string of failures and misfortunes. I was not selected for U-15 team despite scoring the highest runs in the trials. That was a kick in the teeth. Soon, I was selected to play for U-16 team and the next year I made my First-Class debut which turned out to be pretty good. I was rewarded for my fine performances and last year in September, I was selected as the captain of India’s U-19 team.
CC: Your debut First-Class season, as you mentioned, went pretty well. You unfurled scintillating hundred against Railways, your debut hundred in First-Class, and your average for the whole season was above 50. But the last season, 2011-2012, was sedate and your performance sagged quite a bit.
UC: This is not completely true. I agree that my batting average dipped significantly (33.80) but I scored 338 runs in the last season which is considered reasonable, if not good. I am not saying that I’m ecstatic about my performance but I would like to point that I took breezy starts in many innings but couldn’t translate them into big innings. Probably, I was trifle impetuous. I have learnt my lessons and ironed out kinks. This year, I’m hopeful that I shall set new benchmarks for myself.
CC: How has been your experience as a captain of U-19 team? Does captaincy come naturally to you?
UC: I’m thoroughly enjoying my stint as a captain of U-19 team as. It is a matter of monumental honour to captain your national side and I take great pride in leading the U-19 Indian cricket team. My job as a captain is to chalk out strategy before the matches and assign the appropriate roles to the players as per their abilities and requirement of the team. The fact that our team has bunch of supremely-talented cricketers make my job much easier. In fact, I make it a point to involve every member of the team while discussing the game plan. I seek the opinion of everyone and finally arrive at a collective decision.
I would like to believe that I’m a fine skipper as India’s U-19 squad has won both the tournaments since I’ve become the captain. I don’t wish to sound pompous, but my own performance in both the tournaments were creditable and lavish laurels from all quarters came my way.
CC: In the recently concluded quadrangular U-19 tournament in Australia, India lost all three league matches but came back strongly to win semi-final and then final. How did the turnaround happen?
UC: There are a couple of things I would like to make it clear. Firstly, all of us were playing in the Australia for the first time so the conditions were completely alien to us and it took us some time to adapt. Another prominent factor was the toss; we lost the toss in all league matches and batted first when the pitch was fresh and offered assistance to the fast bowlers. Team batting second had the huge advantage on that pitch. If you observe our performance, we were skittled for 123 in our first match against New Zealand but gradually our batting improved. Matches against Australia and England were cliff-hangers, which went down to the last over and could have gone either ways.
So, though we lost all the three matches, our morale wasn’t in the doldrums as we were making strides with each match. Our performance in the last two league matches wasn’t wretched; we just didn’t seize the crucial moments. We knew that we’re playing good cricket and just a match away to turn the tables. Fortunately, the format of the tournament was such that despite losing all the league matches, we were entitled to play the semi-final. By then, we had adapted to the conditions and had known enough about the strength and weakness of our oppositions. We peaked at the right time and defeated England in the semi-final, which was the strongest side of the tournament having won all its three league matches.
In the final, we won the toss for the first time in the tournament, rolled over Australia for a below-par total and galloped to the victory by seven wickets with 44 balls remaining. I remained unbeaten on 112.
CC: You started the tournament on a tepid note but came good in the semi-final and final to win the matches for your team. Did you make any adjustment in your technique after the failure in league matches?
UC: Well, I refrained from playing on the rise and square drive early on in the innings in the semi-final and final. But once I was set, there was no protocol I followed. When I’m in the groove, I like to go for the shots. That is my natural style. As I said, in the earlier matches, we were finding our moorings; once we got the measure of the nature of the pitch and oppositions, we all performed well. Same goes for me. I’m ecstatic that my best knocks came in the most important matches i.e. semi-final and final, and they helped our team to win the matches and eventually lift the trophy.
CC: Australian cricketers are known to be combative who don’t shy away from unleashing few cheeky remarks at their opposition players. Did they launch verbal tirade at you?
UC: In the final, Harry Conway tried to needle me by taking few digs at me. I walloped three sixes in his three overs and Australians realised that these tactics don’t cut ice with me. In fact, they only make me more focused and tenacious to perform. Conway and Australians leaned it the hard way.
CC: Patrick Cummins was one of the major attractions of the tournament since he was making the comeback after the injury. How was the experience facing him?
UC: We all were excited that Cummins was playing in the tournament but we didn’t make huge hue and cry about his presence. We didn’t want to concede any psychological edge to him even before facing him. We watched his bowling videos and analysed his strengths and then decided to play him like any other bowler. I smote two sixes off him in the final and didn’t have any difficulty encountering him.
CC: Do you think the experience of playing the tournament in Australia will come in handy during the U-19 World Cup which is slated to take place later this year? Your take on India’s chances of winning the coveted trophy?
UC: The experience will come in handy during the World Cup. As I mentioned before, it took us some time to get used to the weather and pitch conditions in Australia when we first went there. Now, having played and won there, we are familiar with the weather conditions and nature of the pitches. We know what it takes to excel there and will prepare for the World Cup accordingly using all the experience and insights, which we have accrued, to good effect.
As far chances of winning are concerned, as a unit we’re performing exceedingly well from last one year. Our morale is sky-high and we’re confident to put up a good show. I’m just done with the IPL and will soon start preparing for the World Cup along with my U-19 team-mates. The camp will be held in Bangalore.
CC: Talking of IPL, how was the experience being part of Delhi Daredevils side this season?
UC: We had a redoubtable side which performed brilliantly and finished at the top after the league matches. Unfortunately, we could not end the tournament in the manner which we would have liked but such are the intrigues of cricket. Our strength was, obviously, batting line-up and I only got the chance to play two matches. But, I thoroughly enjoyed my stint with the team as I got to spend a lot of time with the likes of Kevin Pietersen, Virender Sehwag, Mahela Jayawardene, David Warner and Ross Taylor. There’s no better way of learning the trade than watching the masters at work
I observed their work ethics closely and imbibed some eminently vital points which would definitely help me in becoming a better cricketer. I got some pretty neat tips from each one of them. Only IPL can provide an opportunity to spend copious quality time with so many wonderful cricketers around the globe. For youngsters like me, it is a gold mine.
CC: Your batting style and approach to the game are already drawing comparisons with Virat Kohli.
UC: Virat is one of my favourite batsmen, especially after his recent stupendous innings at Hobart (against Sri Lanka) and Dhaka (against Pakistan). What impressed me the most was the way he finished both the games. He remained unbeaten in both matches and took India home rather than becoming blasé after completing his century. He showed plenty of class and maturity. Both these innings are my reference point when I bat especially if we’re chasing the target. I met Virat and had a conversation with him after he returned from Dhaka. He always guides me by talking about my game, pitching in with candid opinions and super suggestions. He also shares his myriad experiences which I find enormously useful.
I take it as a compliment if I’m being compared to him and I earnestly hope to measure up to the exalted billing some day. Virat, along with Sachin Tendulkar, are my two favourite batsmen.
CC: Besides cricket, what are the other activities you like to indulge in?
UC: I’m a voracious reader. Recently I read Andre Agassi’s autobiography, ‘Open’ and Lance Armstrong’s autobiography, ‘It’s not about the bike, my journey back to life.’ I loved both the books. Also, I listen to music to unwind.
CC: Last question, there’s a lot of competition to get a place in the Indian Test side. Ajinkya Rahane, Cheteshwar Pujara, Rohit Sharma, Manoj Tiwary, Robin Bist, all are coming through the ranks. Don’t you, at times, get overawed by the intense and stiff competition?
UC: Not at all. I don’t believe in looking too far ahead. I live in present and put my best foot forward. Presently, I’m concentrating on the U-19 World Cup. My focus is on winning the tournament and performing to the best of my skills and calibre. I’m a firm believer that if we do our work with utmost diligence and honesty, everything else falls into place. I didn’t plan or imagine that I would become the captain of India’s U-19 team but my painstaking endeavour propelled me to the glory.
The only thing that counts in cricket is the on-field performance. That is the paramount and overriding factor. Whoever among us would consistently perform, will have the last laugh. Anyway, I don’t believe in competing with others. The only thing which drives me is to outclass myself and my previous achievements. But the stiff competition you’re talking about is surely a good omen for Indian cricket.
(Navneet Mundhra is a dreamer who has no delusion of grandeur about himself. He is an eternal learner brimming with passion and compassion, a maverick who swears by perfection and integrity and an avid reader, devout philharmonic, die hard movie buff and a passionate writer)