December 20, 2013

Look, Junior's written a book

The story of India's U-19 World Cup-winning captain, Unmukt Chand, gives you an insight into what it takes for young boys in the country to become successful international sportsmen

Seat them next to each other on a plane and Unmukt Chand and Eleanor Catton might have little to say to each other. If only they knew that in some parts of their separate worlds, the responses to their books have been similar. Hours after being named the youngest winner of the Booker Prize, New Zealander Catton spoke about the critical mumbling around her behemoth book, The Luminaries: "There's a sense of: 'Who do you think you are? You can't do that'... There's a feeling of: 'All right, we can tolerate [this] from a man over 50, but we are not going to be spoken to like that by you.' "

The news that Chand, India's Under-19 captain at the 2012 junior World Cup, was going to write a book produced an equally dismissive tenor. A junior's book? Chand is in his third season of first-class cricket as a Delhi opener. His Ranji scores for 2013-14 at the time of writing are - 11, 0, 32, 106*, 1, 19, 3, 4 and 37. He has 196 runs (strike rate 96.07) from 13 IPL matches, and The Sky Is the Limit - My Journey to the World Cup has just been released. We are certainly not going to be spoken to like that by you, because we can't be bothered to read it until you make it big.

Whatever presumptions there may be about The Sky Is The Limit, or the statistical status of its author, there is no mistaking its authenticity or ignoring its detailing. This is a young Indian cricketer's life told in earnestness, with optimism and anxiety. Even before the book was released, Chand was known as a diarist and lover of language. He doesn't travel anywhere without his diary, a book and a dictionary. In an interview with my colleague George Binoy a year ago, he used the word "recalcitrant" in an answer.

Dictionaries and diaries aside, Chand is by no means an assured writer, just as he is some distance away from being the finished article in first-class cricket. The Sky Is the Limit's most rewarding offering, though, is its slice-of-life account of the many rites of passages that boys in India go through while trying to find their place in cricket. Chand is from New Delhi, not the vast hinterland where India's cricketers' now come from. He had access to facilities, grounds, coaches, tournaments. But still.

Before he got to where he has, his father and uncle cleared a scruffy neighbourhood park to prepare a cricket pitch where he could be put into informal training. When Chand was seven, his first coach ensured he worked on a single drill - forward, backward defence - for two years. His teachers helped him get concessional fees at school. His father's friends and colleagues chipped in to sponsor his junior tour to Australia. The management of his apartment complex permitted him to practise in an empty basement with wet tennis balls. Every young cricketer has an army behind him. No dream, as Rahul Dravid said while retiring, is ever chased alone.

In listing what was done for him, Chand's gratitude for the layers of support and encouragement tells his early story through people. There is many a delightful tale about friendships formed on the way to the World Cup. Yet not everything is saccharine: Chand was accused by others of "buttering up" NCA coaches because he spoke freely to them. But he realised that keeping a distance from the rest didn't help either. On a camping trip, one of the group's bullies engineered a "game" in which Chand was named "the most hated" in his group. From being "instantly" teary to working out where it came from played a part in Chand's maturing in junior cricket, and his growing understanding of the requirements of leadership. "Because you are captain, you have to be the first person who decides to set your ego aside."

Amidst his life story, cricketing axioms and words remembered from the wise, there are charmingly unguarded chunks of Chand's diary entries during the World Cup. "I really don't know why I take more pressure in such matches…" he says about throwing his wicket away against Papua New Guinea. "I could do nothing but sulk in the dressing room and clap at the sight of my share going to others… I may sound like a selfish jerk but you can go to any batsman and ask him if I am wrong or right in carrying such an attitude."

The diary is segregated from the main text using a different typeface, but overall it could have done with a deft hand in sequencing the narrative and avoiding sloppy errors - like the names David Whatmore and Abhay Kuruvilla. The publishers must accept responsibility there, because Chand has made sure there is no lack of material. He has many a wander down several strains of thought about cricket, tackling pressure, the calmness required to win, and the tussle between the magic of creativity and the weight of experience. The Sky is the Limit brings a fresh, almost scrubbed, perspective to Indian cricket.

The Sky Is the Limit: My Journey to the World Cup
Unmukt Chand
Penguin Books India
222 pages, Rs 250

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo