India’s Under-19 captain Unmukt Chand has been in incredible form since April 2012, when he led India to victory in a quadrangular tournament final in Australia with an unbeaten 112 in the final against the hosts. That was followed with a centuries in the semi-finals and final of the Asia Cup in Kuala Lumpur in June-July, but Unmukt’s crowning glory came on Sunday when he hit an unbeaten 111 on Sunday to take India to its third ICC U-19 World Cup title. His captain’s innings helped India chase a target of 226 with six wickets in hand to beat Australia at Townsville.
Coming into the final of the World Cup, Unmukt had scores of 31, 0, 4, 78 and 22 but people who have observed his career had reason to believe that a big innings was around the corner. He has the reputation of being a 'big match' player and he further enhanced his stature with his match-winning heroics to become the toast of the country.
Unmukt took up cricket when he was six. His uncle Sunder Chand Thakur discovered his talent and insisted that he pursue cricket seriously. Later, he joined a cricket academy where Sanjay Bhardwaj, also the coach of Gautam Gambhir, was his mentor and made a tremendous contribution in his Unmukt’s evolution as a batsman.
A first-class debut for Delhi came in the 2010-11 season, and Unmukt caught the attention with 400 runs at a sturdy average of 57.14. His maiden first-class century came against Railways on a spiteful pitch on which his team-mates fell like a pack of cards. In just his fourth match, he scored an unbeaten 151 out of a team total of 290, inclusive of 19 boundaries and two sixes. But Unmukt’s second season was tame, resulting in 338 runs at an average of 33.80. He failed to convert breezy starts into big innings.
If one looks at his U-19 career closely, a couple intriguing facts stand out. In the last three tournaments India have played, Unmukt’s performance in the league matches was mediocre but he roared in the finals of all three tournaments and hammered centuries. The icing on the cake is that in two out of the three tournaments, he took his team home and remained unbeaten. In the Asia Cup final against Pakistan, he fell after scoring century and the match ended in a tie which meant the teams were declared joint-winners.
The final of a tournament is a pressure box and being a captain adds a lot more pressure on an individual. Unmukt, however, seems to relish pressure situations instead of getting overawed by them. Another astonishing fact about his achievement of three hundreds in finals is that all three came when India were chasing. And Unmukt, almost single-handedly, drove his team to victory. The way he has scored runs consistently in big matches this year is remarkable.
His idol is Virat Kohli and he told Cricketnext in an exclusive interview that Kohli's twin innings against Sri Lanka in Hobart and Pakistan in Dhaka this year are his reference point when he goes about chasing the target. Not just in attitude, Unmukt resembles his idol in the manner in which he bats. His flicks and cover drives are indeed similar to his senior Delhi batsman’s.
Unmukt said before the World Cup final that it could be his last as an U-19 cricketer, and he has made it memorable. However, as well documented with past Indian sides, U-19 success comes with a cautionary note. India won the World Cup in 2000 and 2008 but only Yuvraj Singh and Virat Kohli, and to a lesser extent Mohammad Kaif, have gone on to carve successful international careers for themselves. There's a huge gulf between U-19 cricket and first-class cricket.
Unmukt’s aim now must be to do well in first-class cricket and graduate to the next level. He had a mediocre domestic season last year and must be looking to carry his sparkling form into first-class cricket. His selection in the India A squad for New Zealand tour indicates that the selectors are keeping a close eye on him and deem him as a potential international cricketer.
Many IPL franchise are likely to inundate him offers of a pretty penny after his recent success and he stands to bag plentiful endorsements. But Unmukt must not let the sudden fame distract him from his aim. He can always consult his seniors like Yuvraj and Kohli who went through the same phase and matured later. From the look of things, he might soon feature in India's ODI or T20 teams but the real challenge for him will be to secure a place in India's Test side. After the retirement of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman a lot of cricketers are vying to fill in the big shoes and it will take a gargantuan endeavor on Unmukt's part to make a place for himself.
Ian Chappell wrote on Sunday that among the Indian players at the World Cup, Unmukt and Harmeet Singh are ready to make their international debuts. Chappell pointed out that players of such caliber must be given exposure by selecting them for international matches and not be made to wait for too long. Knowing his inexhaustible appetite for runs and success, one hopes that Unmukt is looking forward to cement his place permanently in India's senior team before professing, "I have made it large."