Bangalore: Unmukt Chand has been quietly working his way up the ranks for a while now, but over the last two weeks, he has pitch-forked himself into the limelight.
His talent was never in doubt for those who have seen him evolve over the years, but two centuries in must-win encounters at the recent Under-19 Asia Cup in Malaysia have rekindled hopes that he will put himself in the fray for senior selection sooner rather than later.
"Iam on the right track and if I keep doing well, the ultimate goal of playing for India is not too far away," he told Wisden India.
Chand enrolled at Sanjay Bharadwaj's academy in East Delhi when 11, and has since worked his way to the captaincy of the Indian Under-19 team. At the U-19 World Cup in Australia next month, he and the team will hope to build on three titles – including the Asia Cup, shared with Pakistan – in their last three outings.
Chand is not carried away by his successes or the adulation. "When you score runs, there is bound to be some interest surrounding you, but it is part and parcel of being a sportsman and I understand that," he says.
Apart from being the best batsman of the team, Chand will carry the additional responsibility of captaincy, but the leadership role doesn’t weigh him down. "Captaincy is a responsibility, but it hasn't put me under any pressure," he says. "I enjoy it, which makes it easier. It is important for me and the team to stay focused and win the U-19 World Cup."
India should fancy their chances of progressing from a group that includes the West Indies, Zimbabwe and Papua New Guinea. However, Chand doesn't want to look too far ahead. "We don’t want to put pressure on ourselves by thinking of the favourites tag or anything," he says. "If we treat every team with respect and play to the best of our ability, the results will go our way."
"Our previous experience of playing in Australia should help. The pitches will definitely be very different to the ones here or in Malaysia. The challenge lies in how quickly we adapt."
Chand seeks to derive inspiration from Virat Kohli, also from Delhi and the captain when India won the U-19 World Cup in 2008. Chand says seeing Kohli mature as a player has been a part of his education. "Virat has been a good friend and a guide as well," says Chand, who turned 19 this March. "What he has achieved at this age is a benchmark for us. He is a good motivator."
Chand believes an Under-16 inter-state match in 2008 to be the turning point of his career to date. "I was on the bench for the first three matches but got an opportunity against Jammu and Kashmir in the fourth game," he recalls. "I got a crucial 30 in a winning cause in a low-scoring game."
He then made half-centuries in each of the next three knockout games as Delhi won the title. That earned him a place in the North Zone Under-16 side in 2009, and he walked away with the man of the series award.
At 17, Chand made the senior Delhi side for the Vijay Hazare Trophy, the domestic one-day competition, where he scored more than 500 runs including a best of 75 off 59 balls against Punjab. "Viru pa (Virender Sehwag) and Gauti (Gautam Gambhir) were busy with international assignments, but whenever they had the time, they would drop in to the camp and encourage the youngsters," he says. "Mithun Mahnas, our captain too backed me immensely. I was a little jittery, but the younger crop like Shikhar Dhawan and Virat helped me settle in."
Chand’s Ranji Trophy debut came in the 2010-11 season. "I knew that if I was good enough to make it this far, I was good enough to progress," said Chand, a right-handed opener. "It was a big motivation for me because to make it to the Delhi squad consisting of India players like Gambhir, Sehwag, Kohli, Nehra, Dhawan and Ishant. It was a big confidence booster."
Eight innings yielded 400 runs, inclusive of 151 against Railways, and landed him an Indian Premier League contract with Delhi Daredevils for the 2011 season, making him the youngest ever player in IPL history.
On debut, he was dismissed first ball by Lasith Malinga. In the next game, he made two before falling to Shane Warne. "That was a reality check," he says. "I was nervous, and it took a little time to actually believe you were playing against guys you've grown up watching. I didn't take it as a setback, though."
Since then, he has mainly been on the bench, and played only two games in the 2012 season. Chand says even if he didn't play much, he has emerged richer from the experience. "I value everything I’ve learnt from senior players like Sehwag and Mahela Jayawardene," he says. "Just watching them bat is an education. Mahela gave me valuable tips on handling the team from a captain's perspective. He also spoke at length about adapting to different situations."
Chand has interests beyond cricket, and is a huge Roger Federer fan. "I take inspiration from Sachin and Federer, not just because of what they have achieved, but how they've managed to carry themselves off the sporting arena despite having achieved greatness."