Dubai: The next T20 World Cup is exactly a year away, and Robin Uthappa is excited. With it comes a chance to represent India again. The veteran Rajasthan Royals batsman feels there’s one more World Cup left in him. A good showing in IPL 2020, followed by the one next year, may open up an outside chance for him.
It’s been five years since Uthappa last played for India. But the Karnataka lad hasn’t given up hopes of a return to the national side. That’s what spurs him to hit the gym and turn up for training sessions every day.
At 34, Uthappa’s skills haven’t waned one bit. Attractive strokeplay and inventive shots have made him a sensation in the shorter formats of cricket. He is called the ‘Walking Assassin’ for his ability to step out to fast bowlers and launch them over their heads.
A wicketkeeper-batsman for a good part of his career, Uthappa holds the record for the highest score (86) by an Indian on international debut in limited-over games. A member of the Indian team that lifted the inaugural T20 World Cup (2007) in South Africa, Uthappa revelled in the cauldron of the Indian Premier League.
IPL is his stomping ground. That’s where he burnished his reputation. One of the expensive players in IPL history, Uthappa played for five franchises. His best came during the stint with the Kolkata Knight Riders. In 2014, when he played a principal role in KKR’s triumph and highest scorer of the season.
Uthappa signed up for the Rajasthan Royals for this season. As a senior pro, he helps youngsters to stand up to the rigours of life in a bio-bubble and the challenges of IPL games. He’s also the main man in the middle-order, a role that he hopes to turn into runs for the Royals.
Runs from Uthappa’s blade will be good news for Royals. Not to speak of opening up chances to turn up in another T20 World Cup.
Following are the excerpts of a freewheeling, exclusive chat with the articulate cricketer:
GULF NEWS: You have been a perfect example of been there, done that in IPL. While Rajasthan Royals is your fifth franchise, you had also been one of the most expensive Indian players in the league after Gautam Gambhir. How do you look back at the journey?
ROBIN UTHAPPA: I have been extremely blessed to be a part of IPL for every year since it’s inception, very grateful about it. My first year was in Mumbai Indians as an youngster, when everyone was still learning how to walk. My couple of years in Royal Challengers Bangalore was very good. In the first year, we couldn’t make play-offs but next year made the finals where we lost to Deccan Chargers by seven or eight runs.
For Pune Warriors, in spite of us having an exemplary side on paper and a very supportive management, we couldn’t translate it into good performances.
My six years with KKR, it was like completing a journey of life. The first four years were very good under Gambhir but in the last two, I was trying to find my feet and not sure about my role...there was a kind of communication gap. During this journey, I created some exceptional memories with them by being champions, runners-up in Champions Trophy.
I will also not forget the love and affection of the people of Kolkata towards me and my family and am extremely grateful to them. Outside Bangalore, I have had a great sense of admiration about the Kolkata fans.
It’s a new franchise and the start has been good. What are your expectations from the season?
See, We were one of the under-rated teams in the IPL, if not the most under-rated and it gives us a pretty good advantage. We bat deep and have some good bowlers. As an unit, we have worked really hard for a month with the Indian players and the foreign players who were there. It’s a team which is really bound well as there is a sense of positivity and unity - and the international stars gave us a timely boost.
Having said that, we must respect the momentum because in a T20 tournament, when you lose momentum, it’s very difficult to pull it back. Our fourth game, incidentally, is in Abu Dhabi, it’s a day game and the conditions will be difficult for all teams because of the conditions.
It’s been less than a week that you had a ringside view of that fabulous Rahul Tewatia innings. What did he tell you and what was your advice to him?
(Laughs) He didn’t say much for when I walked in, he was not in a very good state of mind. I am familiar with this kind of a situation...last year I was batting for KKR against Mumbai and it was our last league game. I think I was 3.5 or 8 off 19 balls and know the feeling of what he must have been going through.
I said in the dugout that it’s easy to be upset with him, but he needs our support at this stage. When I walked in, I told him not to worry about what happened. Lets try and watch the ball...don’t worry about scoring runs, I told him. I also discussed with him the variations of Sheldon Cottrell, that he has a decent bouncer and bowls the off cutter. To give credit to Rahul, he was very receptive though he was deadpan. When he hit the first six, I went up to him and told him well done, but watch the next ball.
It’s a coincidence that whenever someone hits five sixes in an over in the IPL, I have the best view. When Chris Gayle hit five sixes - I was the wicketkeeper for Pune Warriors and was behind the stumps. Now with Tewatia, I was the non-striker and it was good fun.
What exactly goes on in a batsman’s mind when you cannot connect?
It’s a part and parcel of life...it happens. He (Rahul) was having a bad day in office and he needed a spark to guide him through. There are days when in the job that you do, you try to creative but it doesn’t work. This is the time when you just need one guy to put his arm around the person and guide him. I must say that in my last year with KKR, there was a nobody to provide that.
When I went into bat in Sharjah, we needed a bit of momentum. When a new batsman comes in, you feel the pressure all the more because you have to make up for him during those three-four balls to settle down. Fortunately, I picked up two boundaries during this phase. This is how fairytales come true and I am very glad to be a little part of Rahul’s story.
You were one of the few players who have a very good record against Rashid Khan. What’s the secret?
Rashid (Khan) is a fantastic bowler...I noticed that with his fast arm action, he is going to get minor deviations but not a big turn. Hence, I look to play him as a fastish leg spinner and try not to play him across the line but mostly square off the wicket or down the ground. That makes it slightly easier.
However, he has improved as a bowler too. He has brought in the slower leg spinner and slower googly. Top athletes always try to improve on his skills so that they can stay ahead of the curve. He is someome who has got a great understanding of his bowling, and got he out also (smiles).
It’s been an ongoing battle with him.
There is also another aspect to coping with this scenario, and that is remembering to be grateful. We are being able to bring joy to people and still put food on the table for ourselves and our families in the times of a pandemic.
Talking about the IPL in times of new normal, do you think players may have to grapple with mental health issues with living in a bubble for nearly three months?
Yes, in the current context, the franchises have a lot to do to keep the players happy. When we were in the quarantine, we were thinking oh no, when will these six days end...we can’t see the fellow players, can’t do anything. Even after the quarantine, nothing much changes - it’s just that you can walk into certain parts of the hotel. You could be having friends in this place, but you cannot meet them. I was telling my wife that it doesn’t matter if you are playing the tournament in Dubai or Timbaktu as your life revolves around the hotel room, ground and practice.
Our franchise has put up in a decent hotel with lots of green and a beach for us. Our team room is attached to the physio room where players have to go, so there is a lot of footfall in the team room. When cricketers get together and are laughing or joking, having a game of pool or sharing a coffee, it’s a great circle to be around. The franchises need to provide avenues to keep the players happy and at Royals, they are constantly asking for feedback, telling let us know what more can we do.
There is also another aspect to coping with this scenario, and that is remembering to be grateful. We are being able to bring joy to people and still put food on the table for ourselves and our families in the times of a pandemic. This is something a lot of people don’t have the opportunity to do across the world.
This brings us to the topic of depression, quiet a burning issue among the top professional cricketers and sportspersons. You had also admitted about it sometime back - what’s your take on the subject?
The problem among men, more so among Indians, is that we live in denial about any problems that if we may be facing internally. In India, it’s a taboo to talk about it but one of the first things we need to do is to break the stigma about the mental health. Once you accept that there is something wrong, you are opening the gates of solution. It’s only then you start the journey of healing himself.
However, the moment you start the process, you must stay the course and not give it midway. Sometimes we begin the process, but don’t stay the course and then say I am fine. It’s somewhat like our habit of taking anti-biotics for four days, when you have been actually prescribed for a week, and then say we are fine.
Finally, where does Robin Uthappa go from here as a cricketer? Do you still believe that you can make a comeback to the Indian team?
Absolutely,,,I feel I still have a World Cup left in me. I still have enough left in the tank. otherwise I would not have been here. The fire is still burning inside. The intent, the desire to play at the highest level is there - especially in the shorter format.
You never know, if I can do well in this IPL and in the next one, anything may happen. I live very much in the present. I feel if I look at the present, then the future will take care of itself.