Nineteen-year-old Unmukt Chand is like the teenager next door. He’s a Facebook addict, has his hair well-gelled, and has mastered playstation. You could be easily deceived, for almost a different persona turns up on the field: serious, hardworking and focused. Probably it’s a folly with the way we perceive youth. Playstation boys can be intense too.
Talent and hard work are often at conflict. The more skilful are loathe to pushing themselves, for the game seems so easy to them. Let’s consider the instance of Chand. Not too long ago, Manoj Prabhakar, erstwhile coach of the Delhi team, had a grouse against the boy. Prabhakar felt Chand lacked the application to play four-day cricket.
Another of those city upstarts? Or so we thought. Well, Chand’s career graph and the spectacular run in the recent U-19 series in Australia have belied the perception. Something has certainly changed. Not only has Chand risen in stature through sheer weight of performance, he has been asked to lead India in the U-19 World Cup in Australia that starts today. The story is as much about the other 14 in the Indian squad as about Chand. Unpolished gems waiting to be burnished. Starry-eyed youngsters dreaming big.
This will be their first brush with, what could be called, a semblance of higher-grade cricket. Virat Kohli was at a different mental plane after winning the U-19 World Cup. He has stayed there ever since. Yuvraj Singh made his India debut in Nairobi after a string of impressive performances in the 2000 U-19 World Cup. Mohammad Kaif, his skipper, was already talked about as future leader.
The exposure, as Kaif agrees, is priceless. Kaif believes that the present generation is more matured and are capable of making the leap faster.
He says, “They are exposed to all kind of stuff. Some have IPL contracts, while others have already played first-class cricket. Now, we have the National Cricket Academy. They have all kinds of facilities that we would long for,” says Kaif.
Parthiv Patel, who led India in the U-19 World Cup in 2002, seconds Kaif. “The mindset has changed. Nowadays, players are more mature and tougher. We did not have any first-class players in our side. I wasn’t even playing the Ranji Trophy. Now, you have youngsters who have IPL contracts and have got the kind of exposure playing with some big players in the tournament. The standards have gone up,” feels Patel.
And the enviable confidence levels too, if we may add. There was a time, in the 80s, when India had a defeatist attitude. This-generation Indian cricketers are a complete contrast. The impudence, the self-belief could be seen in the one-day variety, especially in the way these young bats fashion turnarounds from impossible situations.
Yet, it’s undeniable that a World Cup brings its own pressure and not even the best are insulated from it.
“It’s (pressure) there in each match and practice session,” Patel says. “In the time of cut-throat competition, you have to be calm and composed and deliver when it matters.” Kaif believes pressure is inevitable when you are representing India. “If you don’t deliver, there is another youngster waiting to grab the spot. You have to be on the toes. And playing the World Cup is a different experience altogether,” he says.
India had a disappointing 2010 World Cup in New Zealand under the leadership of Ashok Menaria. The next U-19 group has had a remarkable run, however.
They won a quadrangular series in October and were joint winners in the Asia Cup with Pakistan. Down Under, they won a quadrangular series, on the back Chand’s 94 in the semifinal and 112 in the final. Chand had also cracked a fluent 121 against Pakistan in the Asia Cup final in Kuala Lumpur.
India’s batting appears sound, the only lacunae being the absence of the injured Manan Vohra. The likes of left-arm spinner Harmeet Singh and seamer Sandeep Sharma will feature in their second U-19 World Cup. Some valuable experience there.
All-rounder Baba Aparajith and wicketkeeper Smit Patel are the other promising names.
Chand is upbeat and it shows in his words. “We have played in Australia and so we knew the areas we had to work on. We tried to nullify the gaps in the last four tournaments and tried to strengthen our basics,” he says before signing off.