The contrasting stories of Unmukt Chand and Virat Kohli - Townsville 2012 and after
In 2008, a 19-year-old boy from Delhi captained India to victory in the Under-19 World Cup. Four years later, another 19-year-old boy from Delhi captained India to victory in the U-19 World Cup. One made his international debut within six months of doing so. The other hasn't until now.
Their journeys were very similar until the World Cup victories, but couldn't have been more different afterwards. Virat Kohli's, after Kuala Lumpur 2008 and Unmukt Chand's, after Townsville 2012, were as dissimilar as they get. Kohli moved straight up in the direction of the North Pole, Chand straight down towards the South.
Kohli is India's Test captain. He also has 33 international centuries and is amongst the best batsmen in the world. Three years after Kuala Lumpur, he won a World Cup with the senior side. Three years after Kuala Lumpur, he had five ODI centuries and a batting average of 45.
Two years after Townsville, Chand was just one low score away from being dropped by Delhi. Three years after Townsville, he averages a modest 35 in first class cricket. He has seven hundreds from 41 matches. Pretty good, but it's the period around these hundreds where he struggles. Consistency, that annoying little thing that each one of us is supposed to have; he lacks that.
Disparate yet similar starts to careers of Kohli and Chand
Kohli was not liked by too many people when he first came on to the scene. He was brash, he was cocky, he partied, he wore huge studs in his ears, he had tattoos and he seemed too big for his boots. He didn't conform to what Indians considered a well-behaved cricketer. He wasn't judged by his game, he was judged by his personality. Everywhere he went, he just seemed to be attracting hate, and in substantial amounts.
Chand, on the contrary, was very well liked when he emerged. He was quiet, he read, he wrote a diary, he rarely partied, he didn't abuse opponents, he didn't have tattoos and his ears were not pierced. He was like the cricketers from the previous generation, those who the entire country loved – the Rahul Dravid types.
Both Kohli and Chand had landmark innings in their first Ranji Trophy seasons. Kohli's is the one everyone knows about. In December 2006, he was batting overnight on 40 when his father passed away. He came back the next day and went on to score a courageous 90, saving Delhi from being relegated.
That would have been quite an achievement for a grown-up man, let alone an 18-year-old kid. Steel – that's what he's made of.
Chand's landmark innings came in December 2010, against Railways on a lush green wicket at the Roshanara Sports Club. It was a cold, windy day, and Railways had former Indian swing bowlers Sanjay Bangar and Jai Prakash Yadav in their ranks. It was under these tough conditions that the then 17-year-old Chand played one of the best Ranji Trophy innings of all time.
He respected good balls and violently thrashed the bad ones. He ended up making 151; Delhi made 290. Shikhar Dhawan was the second highest scorer with 39.
This innings made the sports headlines the next day. Chand was earmarked as a special talent. They talked about his stroke-making, they talked about his resolve, they talked him up. But he was only 17, there were bound to be failures. There were quite a few.
IPL’s kindness to Kohli and how he grabbed the opportunity
Straight after the 2008 U-19 World Cup, the IPL started. Kohli was picked up by the Royal Challengers of Bangalore. In a team full of veterans, he was one of the few youngsters.
Kohli had a nightmarish first season; he averaged just 13. But he played all the games. RCB showed faith in him, and he rewarded them with runs in the next season, and all the other seasons after that. He even captains them now.
Chand made his IPL debut in April 2011, just six months after becoming a first class player. First match, he was bowled by a typical Lasith Malinga yorker for nought. Second match, he was foxed by the legendary Shane Warne for 5.
That was it. He was sent back home.
In the sixth season of the IPL, which followed the 2012 U-19 World Cup, Chand played three games for the Delhi Daredevils. Just three, and he was dropped. That's pretty much been his IPL story ever since. He's played for three franchises, Rajasthan and Mumbai being the other two, and never been given a proper run.
The most matches he has played in a season is six, for Mumbai in 2015. Even then, he opened in only one game. He was never backed the way Kohli was. Maybe things would have been different had his IPL franchises showed some faith in him.
After the 2008 IPL, an emerging players tournament was played in Australia. Kohli went on that trip. He scored two centuries there, and he scored them when it mattered. He scored them when Indian selector Dilip Vengsarkar was watching from the stands.
That was it. Kohli made it to the ODI squad for the tour of Sri Lanka. He was the reserve middle order batsman.
Kohli played as an opener; Sehwag's injury prompted that move. He fared decently, but there were complaints against his attitude. He doesn't pay too much attention on his game – that's what the management said. He didn't play international cricket for another year.
Kohli's attitude towards the game, towards his teammates, towards himself, towards everything was questioned. It shook him. It was his period of self-realisation.
After that, he became a lot more focussed on his game. He became hard on himself. He slogged his guts out with the single aim of becoming India's best batsman.
All of this because those around him were blunt enough to tell him what he was doing was wrong; they were blunt enough to tell him to pull up his socks. They were blunt enough to tell him that he was wasting his talent, that he was not scoring the runs he was expected to. He took the advice in his stride and has since then gone on to become India's best batsman. All of this because his coaches were stern with him, because he had an attitude problem.
The biggest mistakes sometimes result in the sweetest rewards. All the hate, well most of it, transformed into immense love for India's new batting star. From being universally hated, he became India's new heartthrob.
Burdened with expectations, a fledgling career struggles to take off
After the U-19 World Cup victory in 2012, Chand was labelled Virat Kohli version 2.0. He was expected to play for India within a year of the World Cup. He was expected to be the flag bearer of the Under-19 class of 2012. He was expected to become an IPL star.
Chand was expected to score runs in first-class cricket, those consistent ones. He was expected to do all of it only because someone else his age from Delhi, with a strikingly similar journey, had done so.
He was a special batting talent, Chand, but he was put under too much pressure. People wanted him to be the batting genius that Kohli was. They were impatient with him. He never got that consistent run, the kind a player of his class deserves, on the big stage. Kohli had similar expectations around him, but they never affected him. He's made of steel, that guy. Nothing gets to him.
It was unfair to compare Chand with Kohli. The former was just a first class cricketer and the latter, one of the best there will ever be. Chand wasn't made of steel, the thing that made Kohli go out to bat a day after the demise of his father. Chand was just a normal cricketer, with a special batting talent.
He crumbled under the massive expectations; he was bound to. Being compared to a player like Kohli was too much to handle. He averaged a tad below 30 until last season. Most had given up hope of him playing for India.
It was when that tag of being the next big batting hope was lifted that Chand started to bat like the powerhouse he was in Under-19 cricket. Good balls were respected, like a gentlemanly kiss on the hand. The bad ones were dealt with in anger, like a desperate lip lock. That consistency was still missing, but he was improving.
Those Kohli comparisons were no longer there. Unmukt Chand was now being treated as himself, and not as a reincarnation of Virat Kohli. It helped massively, as he scored three centuries in the 2014-15 Ranji Trophy.
Unmukt Chand was back. Not many noticed it; he was no longer a subject of interest. But he was back.
The lack of top class openers, coupled with his good knocks in the Vijay Hazare limited overs trophy in the 2013-14 season, meant he was a regular fixture in the India 'A' teams that often played touring countries. In these matches, Chand brought out his best game and had, at one stage, four half centuries and a century in seven games. That blue Indian jersey does something to him.
These performances mattered a lot to Chand. They mattered even more before the 'A' series triangular held this month in Chennai.
Dravid’s role in Chand finding his identity
Chand didn't follow up his good Ranji season with a solid performance in the one-dayers; he scored just 37 runs from six matches. He had lost his touch, he had lost his game, he had lost himself. Then, in the IPL that followed, as always, he didn't get too many opportunities with the bat.
Based on form, Chand shouldn't have been in the India 'A' side for the triangular series. But the selectors included him in the team, and they made him the captain. That was because new coach Rahul Dravid rated Chand very highly. It was also because he was one of the only players in the squad to have captaincy experience.
After a long time, Chand was backed to the hilt. And he responded brilliantly. He scored 235 runs in five innings, and fielded brilliantly. He captained India 'A' to victory.
It was like 2012 all over again. Chand batted like a leader. Chand fielded like a leader. Chand captained like a leader. Chand was a leader.
It was ironic that while Kohli was leading the senior team in Sri Lanka, Chand was leading the 'A' team in India. But those comparisons have long stopped. Which is all the better for Chand, and better for Indian cricket.
Although Chand is starting to fulfil his potential, it is too early to say that he's going to play for India. The Rohit Sharma-Shikhar Dhawan-Ajinkya Rahane trio is there in ODIs, while Vijay and Rahul, along with Dhawan, fill the three slots available for openers in Test Cricket.
Unmukt Chand may never play for India, but at least he will go down as Unmukt Chand, and not as a Virat Kohli clone. That will be his own identity. That's what he has always wanted.
He's Unmukt Chand – bad, good, inconsistent, whatever – but that's who he is. He's not Virat Kohli. He never will be.