INCIDENTALLY, he wasn’t one of Ajantha Mendis’ victims that notorious night in Karachi when the mystery spinner laid siege to a mystified Indian batting line-up. Robin Uthappa only faced two deliveries from Mendis, and survived. He was instead trapped lbw by a characteristically sharp off-break from Muttiah Muralitharan. He wouldn’t face another delivery in ODI cricket for almost six years.
Uthappa’s 41-ball 20 was the third-highest score in the innings that night. He hardly looked at ease, however, plodding and prodding against the wiles of Murali for three-quarters of an hour. The Karnataka right-hander had scored a solitary half-century in the year leading up to that Asia Cup final.
He was still all of 22, with his unruly curls adding to the boisterous and cavalier disposition. But the selectors had lost their patience.
And after a season-long run as a lead character in the soap opera that is Indian cricket, those writing the scripts it seemed had knocked him off the cast—it seemed for good. Such was the fervour with which the curtain had been pulled on his still-nascent career.
He had shown glimpses of his bowler-bullying potential. But they had come like flashes in the pan during the 38 ODIs he had played till then.
Ironically, that’s exactly the expression Uthappa would himself use to describe that initial surge of his enigmatic career, as he sat reminiscing about it on the eve of a tour to Zimbabwe, where he seeks, among other things, ultimate redemption. It’s a career that’s also unique in a way, for it’s neither been stop-start nor intermittent. Uthappa’s not been in-and-out of the scene. He burst onto the scene, got an extended run, and then poof, he was gone, lost in obscurity.
“I know the game I used to play in the past. I was a very ‘big flash in the pan’. That’s good for the eye to watch. Consistency takes a hit. Now I believe in my ability. I have reached a place where I am confident,” he says.
Uthappa has always spoken about belief and confidence. He has also been someone who’s never deterred from baring his soul about his failures. To some, that aspect of him can seem pretentious, like he’s desperate to make a favourable impression. But for someone who at times does refer to himself in the third person, Uthappa has never been one to live under illusions.
“I started off pretty well. I didn’t capitalize on the opportunities I got as a young guy. I was 21. In retrospect I could have had a firmer head on my shoulders, I could have had someone to guide me, I could have had a million things. I went through my own personal issues and that kind of side-tracked me for a few years to the point that I wanted to give up the game,” he recalls.
The curls don’t look as rowdy as they used to anymore. They are a lot more settled and in peace, much like the person beneath them. There’s a clarity in Uthappa’s tone, the kind of clarity you expect from someone who’s seen the dark side and lived to tell the tale.
“That was the lowest point as far as cricket is concerned. I wasn’t enjoying the game. As an individual I had reached a stage where I never saw myself. I wanted to restart again. I am glad I came back and fell in love with the game. I have the same passion as I did as a kid who just wanted to hold a bat and go out and have fun,” he says.
To his credit, Uthappa hasn’t shied away from pushing the envelope in his quest to regain what he thought was rightfully his, an established spot in the Indian team. Whether it was hiring a personal coach in Pravin Amre to iron out his batting technique or accepting the responsibility of donning the wicket-keeping gloves, even if it meant many more hours in training and on the field.
At 29, Uthappa is at a stage of his career where every chance counts, and a failure to capitalize could mean slipping back down the pecking order and into oblivion. But in his true prudent fashion, Uthappa doesn’t think he’s reached a point yet where he’s wondering about how much time he has left to enjoy his date with international cricket.
“If you had asked me this question 3-4 years ago when I wasn’t that fit, I would have had a different answer. But today I look at myself as any other youngster there, and I am extremely fit, and getting fitter and stronger.
The dynamics of the game have also changed so much that you can play as long as you are fit. Age is no longer looked at as a concern. I see myself as a successor for MS,” he says, while affirming that he would be keeping wickets in Zimbabwe.
When Uthappa made his debut against England in Indore—scoring 86 before being run-out—he was 21, and around him were a constellation of stars.
Now he’s captained by someone who made his ODI debut five years after he turned up in India colours for the first time.
“My perception has changed. When I was 21, I was in awe of the people around me. Today, I walk in there and I look at it as a place where 15 members are at the same level and have come together and make India win,” he says. There’s a lead role up for grabs in the soap opera all over again. And this time, Uthappa wants to ensure it doesn’t end up as a walk-on part.