Cricket

Robin Uthappa: The Reluctant Hero

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The rise and fall and dream of Robin Uthappa, still waiting for his Test debut at 31

SOME TIME AROUND the hour mark of the interview, Robin Uthappa throws his hands up, rubs the back of his cap and pulls the chain midway on his train of thought. “Man,” he says, pursed lips breaking into a smile, “What’s it about self-reflection that makes you wish you were around a bonfire with a few drinks, under a star-filled sky?”

There’s no fire or ice to speak of, but a dimly lit antechamber of a hotel lobby has been more than conducive for Uthappa’s present frame of mind. Beneath six discs of soft sodium light glowing from the high ceiling, he has long stopped talking about Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) or technique—both of which he has embraced with relish during the ongoing IPL season. Now, for a near-uninterrupted period and honest to a fault, Uthappa has been introspecting, for our benefit, his 31-year-old life. A life that closely resembles a man atop a bronco at the rodeo.

That bronco bucked on May 8th, the day of the interview, as well, when Uthappa’s name wasn’t included in India’s 15-member squad for the ICC Champions Trophy. A rejection despite his fantastic, still-running, IPL season where he has scored six 50s for KKR, three of those in a row including his best-ever T20 knock of 86. But Uthappa’s reaction to the snub flickers somewhere between philosophical and spiritual.

“Honestly, these days, setbacks excite me,” he says. “I’m not in despair anymore for I realise the universe is putting me through this because there is something more to learn. Think about it, if not for these setbacks, we’d all have really boring life stories to tell.”

His life story, if narrated chronologically, begins for all practical purposes in 2006, when, just out of his teens, he made it to the Indian team before nearly anybody else from his generation could even dream of doing so. The quality and intensity of Uthappa’s narration, however, increases visibly when he talks about not his rise to fame, but his fall from it. For that, we must move forward five years from his sensational start, or move back six years from his sensational form today, to 2011—a time that Uthappa says he smacked “rock bottom”. It begins with a man staring into a mirror.

“What I saw disgusted me,” he says. “I was 25 then but looked between 38 and 40. I was fat. I was losing hair. I had this grumpy, sleepy expression on my face and was not in a good place whatsoever.” Uthappa, in this very reflection, saw more than just physical traits. “Four years had passed since I last played for India and I had become an extremely bitter person. Not just as an athlete, I’d become bitter as a human being.”

The man in front of the mirror hadn’t represented India since the Asia Cup in July 2008. Since his exit from the scene, which at this point had a sheen of permanency to it, almost the entirety of the current Indian team had established their spots in the national side, partially due to their controlled rise and partly due to the successive retirements of the legends. It left Uthappa loathing and miserable, as it would have any other human being. But unlike most humans, cricketers most certainly, Uthappa doesn’t shy away from admitting to having experienced those feelings.

“Life is life, yaar. I’m glad to talk about it. And the truth is, I had become someone who didn’t enjoy the success of other people. I saw my own growth in the failure of others. I hated [being] that person. I was like, ‘Who am I? This is not who I am’,” he says, shaking his head. He didn’t just hate himself. He says he also hated something that he claims to be “once again mentally in love with today”. Cricket.

“When you are in such a place, you hate everything. I felt no joy while batting, not even a little. Cricket had become a chore,” he says. “That’s when I decided I couldn’t do this anymore, I wanted to quit cricket. I planned to simply up and go with whatever earnings I had and hit the refresh button. Perhaps in New Zealand, where I wouldn’t be recognised.”

If you do exceedingly well in the IPL or top score in the Ranji Trophy you are rewarded with one frigid tour in Bangladesh, not even with the main side. And you are left thinking, ‘All this hard work and it amounts to this?

Just after Christmas that year, Uthappa shared his ‘reboot’ plan with his then closest friend, Sheetal Gautam. Gautam, a former tennis player herself, understood better than anyone else in his circle what he was going through, but had one request.

“Sheets told me, ‘For my sake, hold off your decision for six months. And in these six months, play cricket for all those reasons you started playing cricket’,” Uthappa says. “She was asking me to play cricket to have fun. Not to make a comeback to India or play the IPL. So I said, sure, let me give it a shot. But what if it didn’t work out, I asked her. She told me she’ll help me pack my bags.”

Gautam was also instrumental in getting Uthappa back in shape again by introducing him to a nutritionist. But there was another baggage that this Bengaluru boy had to shed. “If I was going to give this comeback a shot, I had to cut off from my parents.”

“For some people, their biggest blessings and support are their families; I, as a person, have not had that,” he says. “As much as my parents support me individually and want the best for me, my sister [Sharon] and I grew up with parents whose marriage was very bad. It never worked because our set-up was very dysfunctional and erratic.”

Uthappa claims that not long after he was dropped from the Indian team in 2008, he decided to use up the spare time to help his folks with their marriage. “I was trying to make it better for them but it took a real toll on me—emotionally, spiritually. It was bad, man. I was lost in the whole cycle of it,” he says. “Couple that with being constantly ignored by the selectors even when I was doing really well in clutch situations in domestic cricket and in the blink of an eye, four years had whooshed by me.”

He did cut them off. For over two years. To the extent that when Rosy, Uthappa’s mother, filed a police complaint against Venu, his father, for physical abuse, Robin found out about it in the newspapers.

A visit to Uthappa’s Twitter handle, @robbieuthappa, paints a pretty clear picture of just how he managed to swim up from rock bottom. His profile photograph is of him and Sheetal Gautam, moments after she became his wife. And the header picture of the page contains this Jordan Belfort (whose story inspired Martin Scorcese’s The Wolf of Wall Street) quote: ‘The only thing standing between you and your goal is the bullshit story you keep telling yourself as to why you can’t achieve it.’

Halfway into those six months of ‘happy cricket’ that he had promised his to-be wife, Uthappa found himself at the IPL in 2012, playing for the now defunct franchise, Pune Warriors. “When you have a positive mindset, good things start happening,” says Uthappa. “It was during this IPL that the tide really began shifting. I was about to be introduced, sorry, make that reintroduced, to Pravin Sir, who is now my life guru.”

Pravin Sir, or Pravin Amre, the former India middle-order batsman, was the batting coach of the Pune franchise. Uthappa reveals that Amre had tried to help him with his technique even before he had made it to the Indian team. “He was my first selector at the junior level. But I was 17 and full of myself. I literally wrote him off.”

This time around, however, at the IPL, Uthappa approached him with a clean slate. And Amre reciprocated. “I had this back- and-across trigger movement, which was making me a contender for LBWs. So one day, in a bus journey to a match, I was talking to Sir about it and he was trying to explain to me that on slow wickets or against even medium pacers, I could just stay in one place and play them. I wasn’t convinced; I didn’t think it was possible. So he said, ‘Haven’t you seen Sachin make that adjustment? Anyone can do it if they try. Trust me and try it in the next game. If you fail, I’ll take the blame’.”

The most difficult part of overhauling is not learning, but unlearning. You can change till you are about 17-18 years old. I decided to overhaul my game, unlearn everything, at 26. More than physically, it tested me emotionally

In the following game, against Kings XI Punjab on a slow wicket in Pune, Uthappa gave Amre’s tip a try. He scored a 33-ball 40 and felt his “passion and hunger return”. “When I came back to the dressing room, I asked him if he would become my personal batting coach.” Both laughed. But when Uthappa requested him again, this time from a holiday in Spain and Amre agreed.

So, exactly six months after he had decided to stop playing cricket, Uthappa was hell bent on making it back to the national side. This time, Amre, his personal coach, was going to help him do so. “We were mocked by everybody— fellow cricketers, newspapers—because no cricketer in India had a personal coach at the time. But I was ready to do what it takes and the first step was to admit that there was a gap to bridge with my technique.”

That technique was rickety enough for Amre to suggest an overhaul. And soon, away from the public eye and in an obscure practice wicket in Bengaluru, Uthappa often found himself “crying and batting simultaneously”. “The most difficult part of overhauling is not learning, but unlearning. You can change till you are about 17-18. I decided to overhaul my game, unlearn everything, at 26,” he says. “More than physically, it tested me emotionally and spiritually because you don’t know at that point if you’re doing something right or wrong. I used to play a ball and look up at Sir to see if I did it right.”

Was there a moment when he knew that the overhaul was going in the right direction? “Yes, about a month into working with Pravin Sir, and some 25 years after taking up the game, I experienced playing the cover drive for the first time effortlessly. It was like getting high on something, you know. The feel of it, wow! I, honest to God, felt it in my soul,” he says.

Purely as a batsman, Uthappa has come a long way since hitting that cover drive with a two-inch autograph bat against a plastic ball. He says that since ridding himself of self-doubts about a year after bringing Amre on board, Uthappa has never felt out of form. “Runs come and go, but I’ve never been uncomfortable as a batsman,” he says.

Those words are backed up by the fact that in the IPL of 2014, his first with KKR in their title-winning run, Uthappa scored 660 runs and snatched his first Orange Cap—given to the top run- getter of the season. And in the Ranji Trophy that followed later that year, Uthappa led the way with the most runs of the edition, 912, as his side bagged the domestic title as well.

Yet, his growth as a batsman hasn’t made much headway into his aim of cementing his place in the national side. He has been recalled on three separate occasions—on a tour of Bangladesh in 2014, at home against Sri Lanka later that year and in Zimbabwe in 2015. He didn’t exactly shine in any of them.

“But these recalls of mine have been more like gratuity,” he says. “You know, if you do exceedingly well in the IPL or top score in the Ranji Trophy you are rewarded with one frigid tour in Bangladesh, not even with the main side. And you are left thinking, ‘All this hard work and it amounts to this?’”

Still, despite these setbacks, Uthappa says he is in a better place, in life and in cricket, than he has ever been. His goals, too, are more ambitious than they have ever been. “I want to play Test cricket. I really do,” says arguably the best player to have not played Test cricket in the world at present. “Today, I’m well-equipped for it with my new technique, better equipped than I’ve been in my entire life. And I’m going after it with everything I have.”

What if it weren’t to happen, I ask, considering he is going to turn 32 this year (here’s a fact: only four Indian players have made their Test debut past the age of 30 in the new century. And none of them played more than six Test matches). Uthappa smiles, points towards a tattoo on his forearm that reads ‘I AM’ and says: “This is a mark of acceptance. I had to hit rock bottom in life and work myself up from there to even have self respect.”

“If my career ends without me having played Test cricket, I’ll accept that too. But until then, until it’s over, until I cannot do anymore, you can bet that I’ll give it everything I got.”

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