'I thought I could get away with murder'
It was 2007. They said he didn't look fit. They said he had been reduced to two shots - a paddle scoop and a desperate walk down the track. They said he was arrogant, that he had got ahead of himself. That Robin Uthappa was over. Aged 21.
Uthappa grew up with such accusations directed at him: unfit, over-confident, arrogant, a front-foot thumper. The stories were familiar. Everyone had heard the one about his mother suggesting he ask Rahul Dravid for an autograph, only to have her son reply, "I want to give, not take autographs."
The one about his weight, however, is not so well known. At the age of 10, an attack of epilepsy meant he had to take steroid medication for three-and-a-half years. It slowed his metabolism and made him susceptible to putting on weight, leading to a life-long battle against the bulge.
Things haven't changed much. Uthappa is still battling the same perceptions.
"I need not only to be fit but also to look fit," he says. "If I don't train for a week, I put on four kilos. You can imagine what happens if I don't train for a month. Post-IPL I was 85kgs. I went into surgery [for a shoulder injury] at 89 kilos." After surgery he didn't train for 21 days. He started rehab at 95 kilos.
It has to be depressing. "It's like hitting a wall," he says. "Day in, day out you hit the gym and work really hard but you feel like you are not getting any results." After the surgery Uthappa checked his weight every week. No movement on the scale. Still the after-effects of the old battle with epilepsy. Uthappa looks fit now, but he knows it's a never-ending struggle.
Arrogance, the second sin, shadowed him for long and he admits as much. When he played the first IPL, just on the heels of a World Twenty20 triumph, the familiar traps followed: money, fame and narcissism. "I was 21-22, we had just won the World Cup, and I thought I could get away with murder, man," Uthappa says.
It's the burden of his generation, and it looks like Uthappa's story is repeated in a dozen youngsters around. The system and its "benefits" can leave a young cricketer vulnerable to temptation and unaware of how to handle fame and fortune.
He says it wasn't the usual distractions like parties and late nights that had bothered him. "I stopped working as hard as I used to. My work ethics definitely suffered. I would rather stay in the room rather than get some work done in the gym. I would rather hit 20 balls less than 40 more, like I used to do in the past."
"Fame does funny things," Sadanand Viswanath, an eighties star who burnt out early, once said. "The adoration from fans is indescribable. You have to be there to understand it." Uthappa does. "Money, certainly, is a factor," he says. "When you are suddenly earning so much, you get ahead of yourself."
An entourage mushrooms around you, of the kind of people a young athlete ends up attracting. "You get people who tell you what you want to hear, you slack off," Uthappa adds, "Worse, you don't even know you are slacking. It happens more and more, especially with the kind of money that's come into the game now."
"It took a while for me to adjust, but I am really happy that I realised by myself that I was going off track and realised pretty quickly. I remember thinking, 'S**t, I'm getting ahead of myself and should hold back.' Even then I guess it was a little late to realise."
He is 24 now. He reflects on that phase of his life and talks about what youngsters need in times like the ones he went through. "I think one has to have a guide, a mentor they can talk to, trust, and blindly believe what they say," he says. "It could be a fellow player, a coach or parents. If that other person says you are crap right now, you close your eyes and believe that is so. Thankfully due to my education and upbringing, I realised soon that I was heading the wrong way. I have understood that there are lines a player can and cannot cross and I have mended my ways."
If that indeed is true - and there is no reason not to believe him - it's only the beginning of the battle. Uthappa started his campaign to return to the Indian team on the domestic circuit. He had a reasonable 2009 season, but flopped in that year's IPL. The domestic season that followed wasn't great, but the IPL 2010 was. His power-packed cameos put him back on the map. It also helped him understand the path ahead.
"I can't be a Rahul Dravid. I can't be a grafter," Uthappa says. "I don't have the flexibility of Sachin, who can graft and attack at his own will. I am someone whose strength is aggression. I am more in the mould of Hayden, Sehwag or Dhoni. I have decided that's how I am going to play from now on."
The Champions League is the first step in his attempt to return to international cricket. Since the 2009 World Twenty20, many young Indian batsmen have floundered against short-pitched deliveries. Uthappa sees the Champions League as an opportunity to showcase his skill. "I grew up on matting wickets, and pull shots come naturally to me. The South African pitches will offer bounce and should be ideal for such shots."
He has said he will concentrate on his keeping, and now aims to fill that role for India in the limited-overs formats. He also says he has relinquished the opening slot, and will seek a role in the middle order. It's not going to be easy. He still has a long way to go. The good news is, Uthappa knows it and is ready for the long haul.
Sriram Veera is a staff writer at Cricinfo