The fault in his star
In his search for an answer, Unmukt Chand has seemingly forgotten about the loaded spoon in his hand.
“Sometimes it’s not easy to find the right words to translate what one is thinking. But let me try again,” he says in a measured sort of way.
Unmukt’s spoon, heaped with daal and rice, hovers at a mid-way point between his mouth and the plate.
“When I was younger, I was keen to experience everything before I die—all the emotions and feelings that life has to offer,” Unmukt says, allowing the thought to unfold slowly.
“But now I realise what people mean when they say, ‘be careful what you wish for’. Because I have now experienced terrible lows as well.
“Saala, aisa laga ki mein sadak pe aa gaya (It felt as if I was thrown out on the streets).”
Such has been the last few years in the life of a player who was not too long ago considered the next big thing in Indian cricket. For the last three seasons Unmukt hasn’t been picked by any IPL team. For the last two years he hasn’t featured in a first-class match for Delhi, his state-team. The second of those setbacks even forced Unmukt to seek opportunities beyond Delhi. Earlier this month, on September 3, he announced that in the upcoming season he will play and lead Uttarakhand, the newly formed team that topped the second tier of the Ranji Trophy in 2018-19.
This was not how it was supposed to pan out for Unmukt Thakur Chand, who, as a prodigious junior cricketer, led India to victory in the 2012 U19 World Cup, and who, in his debut Ranji season for Delhi in 2010-11, hit 151 on a seaming track at 17.
Here was the next big thing in Indian cricket, just like the country’s Under-19 World Cup winning captain before him. Unmukt was the quieter, shier and less brattier version of state-mate Virat Kohli. The East Delhi yin to Kohli’s West Delhi yang. Then, somewhere along the way, it came apart; the fall seemingly as dramatic as the rise.
“A large part of that fall happened in the space of one week,” Unmukt says, placing the spoon back and pushing the plate away altogether. “I was dropped for the first time from the Ranji Trophy side in 2017. Then, a few days later, there was no bid for me in the IPL auction. It felt like my life had been ripped apart.”
That’s when the penny dropped for Unmukt. “Back then, I never thought there would be a day when I wouldn’t be good enough for Delhi. I was an India hopeful at that time and the captain of the India A team. So that was most unsettling. But when the IPL snub followed, I woke up the next day with a strange realisation,” he says. “You know, all sportspersons—even the really great ones—live a life of fear. Fear of failure; fear of good form going away; fear of everything you have built coming crashing down. So, when I did hit my rock-bottom in 2017, it was a weight off my shoulders. I told myself, ‘Bhai, isse zyaada kya hoga?’(What else could possibly go wrong?)”
Since that week in 2017, precious little has changed in Unmukt’s life, career-wise. He was 23 then; he is 26 now; and always his well-wishers remind him of that time when was 19. Nearly seven years ago to the day, on August 26th 2012, Unmukt held aloft the junior World Cup trophy in Townsville, Australia. And for all practical purposes, that is where his story begins.
In that final, against hosts Australia, Unmukt struck an unbeaten 111 in the chase and was named Man of the Match. The awards didn’t stop there. When he returned to India, there was a book contract with Penguin and a Pepsi advertisement with Kohli and MS Dhoni. He wasn’t yet out of his teens and everyone wanted a piece of him.
In that advert, Unmukt is seen sneaking into the ‘Senior Team Dressing Room’ to nick a bottle of cola. Kohli and Dhoni catch him in the act and ask him to buzz off. To which Unmukt replies with this (loosely translated) punchline: “I can play for your team any time now. But you guys cannot play for my (junior) team.”
‘Any time now’ has never seemed further away than it does these days.
Now he’ll play for india
We’re inside the Raman Lamba Dressing Room, the home team’s change-room at the Feroz Shah Kotla Stadium. During domestic fixtures, this vast lounge dotted with kitschy leather chairs is inhabited by Delhi’s players and during international matches, it hosts the Indian team. Unmukt first strode in here as a 17-year old, when he made his first-class debut for a state side loaded with heavyweights.
“After that World Cup win, I was very confident as a cricketer. It wasn’t arrogance, but a quiet confidence that I am not just better than most people my age at 19, but also good enough to be sharing this dressing room with Viru [Virender Sehwag] bhai, Virat, Gautam [Gambhir] bhai, Shikhar [Dhawan],” he says, pointing at various chairs as he does his roll-call.
Three out of those four names have opened the innings for India. Yet, Unmukt says: “They would all adjust in the batting order to ensure that I opened the innings.”
That is as powerful an ego-drug as they come; two of Sehwag, Gambhir and Dhawan dropping down the order so the kid could be comfortable in his position. But Unmukt is vehement that he didn’t let that, or his early success, get to his head.
“I have had a very grounded upbringing,” he says. “I had realised very early on, when I was 16 or 17 and my name had started appearing in newspapers, that all that I am is because I am good with one skill set—batting. And to continue to be good at it, I need to practice every single day. So, yes, after the World Cup win, it was only human to feel proud for some time but the very next day I was back to the routine of training hard in the nets.”
When or how did it start to unravel? His critics, of whom there are now plenty, have claimed with some certainty that his proclivity to celebritydom caused his downfall. In 2012, Unmukt was rather publicly admonished by Kapil Dev when they shared a stage as guest speakers at the India Today Conclave.
“What are you doing here? Why you have come here,” Kapil told him. “If I were his coach or manager, I would not have let him skip camp and come here even if I was given a million dollars. I would have kicked in the backside for coming here… Work hard for the next three years so you can live like a king for the next 20.”
Then there are even those close to him who blame his current fate on penning a book and appearing in a commercial before having made it to the Indian team. Unmukt doesn’t stand for it.
“Many people tell me this, but I don’t agree. The book was the result of a diary I keep, a practice that continues to be a big part of my life. It’s not like I got the idea to write it after we won the World Cup,” he says. “About the cola ad…I think people should ask themselves if they would have passed up the offer to feature in a commercial with Dhoni and Kohli. I don’t think so.”
Unmukt is visibly uncomfortable with this subject, but is brave enough to not change the topic. “See,” he says after a long pause, “What I did off the field at a young age remains a factor in the analysis of my cricket only because I didn’t make it. Does anyone speak about when other cricketers, who are now playing for India, shot their first advertisements? Unlikely.”
It’s a fair point and also one that highlights his potential that was on promise. Few junior cricketers, before or after Unmukt, have generated that kind of buzz despite all of them inhabiting this age of hyper-multimedia. He was that kid-next-door with an easy smile and an incredible appetite for runs. But importantly, he was armed with that golden ticket into the Indian team. “I think that was the biggest problem, everyone constantly saying ‘ab India khelega, ab India khelega’ (’Now he’ll play for India’). That got a bit much,” Unmukt says, shaking his head. “What happens then is you start expecting a little too much from yourself and that is just needless pressure. Not so much from people, but from your own self. Every play-and-miss, every dismissal, every match that I couldn’t win for my team, I started feeling it at a heightened level. When I look back now, I realise that I shouldn’t have burdened myself unnecessarily. But that’s my journey.”
Although he cannot really put a finger on it, Unmukt now believes that he lost out by asking for, and taking on board, advice from too many people.
“Because I was a kid, I felt that everyone older than me knew better than me. This happened in my initial years in the Ranji Trophy, where I used to get a lot of inputs from coaches and senior players on which shots to shelve and where to score runs. Because of that, I started losing my natural game. I mean if Steve Smith focussed on his technique and not his natural game, what would have happened to him?”
For two years in his early 20s, says Unmukt, he spent his life trying to get technically perfect. “If you start playing like how everyone else wants you to play, you lose yourself. For those two years, I was so focussed on my feet placement, my shuffle, my backlift and all those unnecessary things that I wasn’t watching the bowler’s hand at all. Can you imagine that?” he says. “But that phase also taught me a lot. Mainly that if you focus only on yourself even things of consequence blur into the background.”
This, the ability to find life lessons from crippling lows, tends to happen often in a conversation with Unmukt. He is never bitter when forced to relive the past but seldom chooses to live in it, despite having plenty of terrific highs and terrible lows to mull over. “I may not have played for the country. But I feel like I have seen more ups and downs already than some of the players who have played at the highest level,” he says. “It is what it is, whether I like it or not.”
The obvious question, then, is to ask him if he would have preferred trading some of those experiences for a duller life, one that perhaps would have guaranteed him a passage into the Indian team.
“Not at all, my journey is unique to me and I shall always treasure it,” he replies. “And what’s the point of trying to figure out how the 19-year-old Unmukt could have made the Indian team when the 26-year-old Unmukt still has many opportunities to do so in the future?”
batting for me is a prayer
They say success has many fathers. In the lack of it, Unmukt turned to his uncle. Sunder Chand Thakur, Unmukt’s father’s brother, is a supremely fit ex-army officer turned journalist, whose Twitter timeline is flooded with his gym sessions and long-distance times. Unmukt has spent the last couple of months of this off-season staying with his chacha in Mumbai. And the results are evident; his arms and legs are jacked with chiseled muscles and his core is trimmer than ever before.
But physical fitness is simply the value-add of his recent stint in Mumbai, not its primary benefit. That would be his batting sessions under the tutelage of Abhishek Nayar, the former Mumbai all-rounder.
“We go back a long way. In fact I even captained him during my India A days. After Abhishek stopped playing, he fast earned a reputation of being a great batting coach. He truly is fantastic with the mental side of the art, but is easily the best in the country when it comes to working with skills,” he says. “Now I am not losing myself every time I make an adjustment under him. All the changes are very refined.”
There is only so much even a top coach can do for a player and Unmukt has fast realised that.
“I have to put in the hard yards and I have to practice every day. And neither of those two things are possible if you don’t love the game. Luckily for me, I learned that I indeed do in the last three years, during a period when nothing was going well for me,” he says. “Batting for me, I realised, is not just a career. For me it is the equivalent of a prayer.”
Some prayers are answered faster than others. Although Unmukt is the face of his title-winning Under-19 squad, the Batch of 2012 seems to have suffered more than most other batches from India’s flourishing junior set-up. Out of the 15 players who flew to Australia for that World Cup, only Hanuma Vihari—in the Test squad currently –got a consistent run at the highest level.
Compare that to the next three batches. From ‘14, Shreyas Iyer, Kuldeep Yadav and Sanju Samson broke through; from ’16, Rishabh Pant, Khaleel Ahmed and Washington Sundar were all part of the tour of the West Indies in one format or the other; and even from the most recent Batch of 2018, Prithvi Shaw has played two Tests and Shubman Gill has featured in as many ODIs.
Unmukt shrugs and purses his lips. “I don’t know why that is the case,” he says. “I don’t think that team was lacking in quality. And neither is it because the quality of bowling was so bad that batsmen scored free runs. There are many batsmen from other teams who played that World Cup who are now playing for their respective countries.”
He’s right, for Australia’s Cameron Bancroft and Travis Head, Pakistan’s Babar Azam and Imam ul-Haq, Bangladesh’s Litton Das and Mosaddek Hossain, Sri Lanka’s Niroshan Dickwella, South Africa’s Quinton de Kock and West Indies’ Kraigg Brathwaite all seemed to have turned out alright.
no one asks about me
There are a few forums on Reddit dedicated to getting to the bottom of the Unmukt mystery. One of them is called ‘Whatever happened to Unmukt Chand?’ Another one is titled ‘Where is Unmukt Chand right now?’ All these forums have drawn posts/answers from the users and most of the reasons given are along expected lines. ‘Acted in ad hence failed’. ‘Let little success go to his head’. ‘Sorted out in the IPL.’ Etcetera.
But one of the answers, possibly inadvertently, chances upon what could well be the real reason. It reads: ‘Plays for Delhi so they have kicked him out because of politics’. The person who wrote this is perhaps acutely aware of the age-old rot that exists in the Delhi & District Cricket Association, which rules over a system that creates great players in spite of and not because of it. In Ranji Trophy 2018-19, DDCA’s selectors tried as many as 24 different players for Delhi through the season. Unmukt wasn’t one of them.
Unmukt shoulders his arms to questions on whether his former state association had an agenda against him or not. But he does speak about it tangentially when he talks about the cricket culture in Delhi vis-à-vis other states.
“I owe everything I have to Delhi cricket, don’t get me wrong. But we don’t have the same structure for team growth or the system of, say, players from Mumbai or Andhra. For example, no one in the Delhi set-up is going to care if you train or not in the off-season. Whether you want to go on a holiday for six months or whether you want to practice and get better during that time is completely on you,” he says. “So, while other states are building great teams, Delhi has been producing great individuals.”
Still, it must only be human to envy when the same system produces a wonderkid six years younger than him who, within a year of making his India debut, has gone on to corner a permanent place in Test cricket and has also played an ODI World Cup.
“See, Rishabh’s journey is his own and I don’t begrudge him his success. I only look inward, to tell you the truth,” says Unmukt. “But, yes, sometimes, in my moments of weakness, I do look back upon the respect and adulation I once used to get and see where I am now and think, ‘Yaar, koi mere baare mein poochta bhi nahi hai (No one even asks about me these days).”
The slump has also held a mirror to his personal life, and shown him who his real friends are. The hangers-on and the yes-men exited at the first sign of trouble and all Unmukt was left with “those three-four friends who knew me from before I was anybody in cricket, and my family.”
“But I’ll tell you what I have been telling them of late,” he says. “Which is I am not done yet. Far from it. The kind of journey I have had has been special. And it has a few more special twists in store.”
When he is asked what his immediate ambitions are, Unmukt doesn’t need time to think. “I want to play a full domestic season, that’s all,” he says. “I have spent too much time on the sidelines these past few years and I don’t have any more time to waste. I want to occupy the dressing room in the playing eleven in all matches this season, be it white-ball or red-ball.”
A full season. On the road, working his way from city to city, town to town, with a newly promoted team hoping to hold its own against Ranji heavyweights. The boy who aimed to rocket for the stars—and missed—has now acquainted himself with the staircase as a man. At the very bottom of it, he is readying himself to take one steady step at a time.