If ever there was a perfect embodiment of ‘the next big thing in Indian cricket’, it was Delhi boy Unmukt Chand. Smashing a scintillating 111* off 130 balls in the final against hosts Australia, the then 19-year-old opener burst into the limelight by leading India to their record third U-19 World Cup title on August 26, 2012 in Townsville.
Additionally, Unmukt Chand made the headlines for finishing the tournament as the highest run-getter – 246 runs at an average of 49.20 from six games. But it was his clean batswing, effortless hitting, graceful presence at the crease and ability to lead by example that captivated people. He nailed down Delhi’s opening slot in both the domestic circuit and IPL, and fans were already seeing a future India captain in him.
But good times don’t last forever, and nobody can relate to this harsh truth better than Unmukt Chand. Eight domestic seasons and as many IPL editions later, Chand doesn’t find himself batting for Delhi that often. So much so that he even left his parent state behind and plied his trade for Uttarakhand in the last domestic season.
However, he is now back home after staying away for a year. In an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, the 27-year-old Unmukt Chand expressed satisfaction over returning to familiar surroundings.
“It feels good to come back to my home state, Delhi. I have played all my cricket here and playing for Delhi is always a pride. I have been very lucky to play with many legends of the game from Delhi, and playing for Delhi, winning for Delhi is very special in the domestic circuit. It holds a lot of value and the feel is also very good.”
Unmukt Chand had a fantastic start to his first-class career as he amassed 400 runs at an average of 57.14 from five matches in the 2010/11 Ranji Trophy. Impressive performances generated both promise and opportunities as the Delhi opener’s name travelled around India’s domestic circuit.
He played 44 more Ranji Trophy games – scoring 2,418 runs with six hundreds and 13 fifties to boot – across the subsequent six seasons until things took an ugly turn in the 2017/18 edition. Warming the bench suddenly seemed the new normal as Unmukt Chand finished that first-class season with just 127 runs from four matches. Notably, Delhi lost in the final to Vidharbha, thus handing the Faiz Fazal-led side their maiden title.
Unmukt Chand's numbers in white-ball cricket weren't great either. He scored 253 runs in 10 one-day matches and 240 runs in as many T20 games, with two fifties in each format.
The following season, though, was an even bitter pill to swallow as Unmukt Chand was among three senior players – Manan Sharma and Milind Kumar being the others – dropped from the Delhi squad. Notably, it was also the season that saw Rishabh Pant being sacked as captain, replaced by fast bowler Pradeep Sangwan.
Going an entire season without playing first-class cricket can be hazardous to a 25-year-old cricketer, thus prompting Unmukt Chand to travel further north.
“Things were not going very well in the [Delhi] association. I was constantly getting dropped, I was not getting to play on a regular basis. So that’s what pushed me to go there, and then eventually it’s like a homecoming, as people say.”
There is cut-throat competition to not only make it to the Ranji Trophy but also thrive in it. The difference in quality between Elite and Plate teams became clear to Unmukt Chand while representing Uttarakhand. He realised his biggest chance of winning silverware and accolades lay with playing for the heavyweights.
“I missed being a part of the setup. It’s always really nice to come and play for Delhi, your performances also get noticed quite a lot when you do well for Delhi because lots of eyes are on teams like Delhi, Mumbai, Karnataka. So that makes a lot of difference as well, and I have grown up with these players, I know them in and out, and when heavyweights play together, it’s always very nice."
“We’re in a championship, you don’t want to just go there and participate. The major reason was that I wanted to be a part of a winning squad – be it the one-day, T20 or Ranji Trophy. That was one of the major reasons that I felt we could do it in Delhi and not anywhere else.”
In seven matches of the 2019/20 Ranji Trophy, Unmukt Chand managed 195 runs at a meagre average of 13.92 with a highest score of 41. Notably, he was also left startled when the team management stripped him of captaincy without informing him, after just three games at the helm.
However, he had a decent outing in the 50-over competition, scoring 257 runs at an average of 51.4 from six matches.
Unmukt Chand’s IPL career doesn’t look as promising as it did at the start of the decade gone by. The U-19 World title in 2012 paved the way for opportunities in the cash-rich league.
After playing just four matches for the Delhi Daredevils across 2011 and 2012, Unmukt Chand had his best season in IPL 2013 when he scored 158 runs at an average of 17.55 from nine games.
Best season? Yes, he has had just six outings since then, with his last match coming in IPL 2016. The current scenario is more bleak as Unmukt Chand could not even make the shortlist at the recent IPL 2021 player auction.
However, the predicament can be attributed to him getting injured right before the teams went into their respective bio-bubbles ahead of the 2021 Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy.
“Last year I got a fracture before the T20 tournament, I had to miss the entire tournament. So if people don’t see me, then there’s a question mark no? But you can’t control these things, what’s in my control are the next five games which are going to come. I am sure things will change from here.”
Residing in a bio-secure bubble in Jaipur, Delhi play their first match of the 2021 Vijay Hazare Trophy against Mumbai on Sunday (February 21). Pradeep Sangwan's boys are placed in Group D along with Puducherry, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Himachal Pradesh.
Unmukt Chand 2.0 is a calmer Unmukt Chand
For a person who has tasted success very early in life, two quiet seasons can be pretty hard to come to terms with. Unmukt Chand has now gone two years without registering a hundred.
However, setbacks can turn out to be a blessing in disguise if channelised properly. And Unmukt Chand seems to be in a much better head space at the moment.
“Whenever I go for practice, my aim is to get better so that I can perform well and get better and better and better. Few things go your way, few things don’t go your way, but it’s okay. You got to be patient and be at peace with yourself, you should accept what the situation is and I have seen both success and failure.
“I have learnt to stay at equanimity with myself, especially in these times when things are not going your way. And the more I stay calm, the better I would be able to come back. What all are in my control – I stay calm, I practice, I invest my energy in the right places. Times change, time will come again, and I will again be there because the will is there. If you really want something, you work hard for that, stay true to it, phir bhale woh late miley lekin woh zaroor milta hai.”
Modern-day stars have to deal with demons both on and off the pitch, thanks to the rising influence of social media. While Unmukt Chand wanted to inspire the youth by sharing his experience through his book ‘The Sky Is the Limit: My Journey to the World Cup’, his failure to replicate another similar high defeated the purpose of the publication. People blamed him for getting distracted and asked him to focus on his cricket.
He also tried his hand at calling games and imparting his inputs while commentating on last year’s U-19 World Cup and the Caribbean Premier League. That also didn’t go down well with the fans as they started relating Unmukt Chand’s failures on the cricket field to his newest exploits off it. However, he doesn’t regret any of his deeds.
“My energies were pure while doing whatever I did, and I would always keep doing it. This is a mass sentiment which keeps changing – we all know this – it’s a mom mentality. When things go well, then people who party till late night are also very good. If not, then even if you write a book or do commentary, negative comments will come your way.”
Though unnecessary speculation did get to his nerves, Unmukt Chand admitted he has gotten used to it and now lets his optimistic self tide over such adversities.
“They obviously cannot touch me and go, but voh aadat ho gayi hai. This is again what time teaches you, that these things will come your way but it’s okay for I got a lot of praise as well when we did well as a team and individually as well. So when you get so much of attention, those [negative] things also come your way.
“Again, it wasn’t in my control right? So that’s how I look at it, and I am a very optimistic person by nature. There’s a quote which says – ‘I would rather be optimistic and wrong than be pessimistic and right’. My optimism takes over whenever such things bog me down, if at all.”
In fact, Unmukt Chand wishes he was better prepared to deal with the lows and negativities of the universe. He has a piece of advice for his 19-year-old self:
“Be ready to face life, you’ll have ups and downs. I saw a lot of ups by then, you’d suddenly have downs. We all know, we all have in life. So be ready for it, accept it and keep striving for excellence.”
“Even if I am playing at club level, I really enjoy it and I am going to do that” – Unmukt Chand
Thinking of Unmukt Chand inevitably brings back memories of a teenager playing delectable shots to send the ball a long way – sixes down the ground, over cover, over mid-wicket into the car park outside the Tony Ireland Stadium in Townsville.
But it wasn’t a one-off exhibition. In an U-19 quadrangular tournament featuring Australia, England and New Zealand in April 2012, Unmukt Chand smashed a 94 in the semi-final against England and a match-winning 112 in the final against the Aussies. Interestingly, the entire event was played in Townsville.
Two months later, Unmukt Chand was back at it again. While his 116 in the semi-final against Sri Lanka set up a six-wicket victory, the 121 in the summit clash helped India come from behind and share the ACC U-19 Asia Cup with arch rivals Pakistan. Quizzed about the secret to setting the biggest of stages ablaze, he said individual performances become the eventual byproducts of the desire to win the respective trophies.
“The intensity is higher in these matches, your focus is mostly on how to win the trophy for your team, so your mind is not on you scoring runs, it is on how to win. These matches take me away from individual performances, the focus becomes that trophy, that tournament. That’s what gets me into that zone, in knockout stages where every match is crucial and the mindset totally changes and things take over from there.”
And he will be going into the ongoing Vijay Hazare Trophy with a similar mindset and an aim to help Delhi go all the way. The northern giants have won the tournament just once in the 2012/13 season, with Unmukt Chand scoring a majestic 133-ball 116 to decimate Assam in the final.
“My only target is to win the Vijay Hazare Trophy, my mind works in that fashion that I want to win matches for my team – be it a 30 not out, 40 runs, 100 runs – it should contribute to the team’s cause. Rest of the things will take care of themselves.”
February 5, 2018. Unmukt Chand was tackling a broken jaw after a powerful shot penetrated the nets and caught him flush on the face during training. The freak injury didn't stop him from playing. He battled through pain and notched up a valiant 125-ball 116, thus helping Delhi beat Uttar Pradesh by 55 runs in the Vijay Hazare Trophy.
If Unmukt Chand can overcome a broken jaw, people should think twice before casting doubt on whether he can overcome broken spirit and make the opening slot for Delhi his own.
“Cricket has always been my passion, and I will keep playing the game. Even if I am playing at club level, I really enjoy it and I am going to do that.”