The Uthappa story September 7, 2007

Against all odds

Robin Uthappa: brashly confident of his own ability © AFP

The ball is screaming towards the blockhole. You need eight runs from four balls. You have never played at No. 7 in an international match before. The series is on the line. What do you do? Well, we know what Robin Uthappa did at The Oval: He walked across the stumps to paddle-scoop one away for four. Next, he dashed down the track, converted an intended yorker into a full toss and hit it straight down the ground. Game over.

This is not new-found confidence. His mother, Rosy, once told him to ask Rahul Dravid for an autograph but he fobbed her off. "I want to give, not seek autographs."

Fourteen years ago, Uthappa was just a plump kid who was interested in sports. His father was an international hockey umpire and junior dabbled with hockey, tennis and cricket. It was a random event that changed his life. He stumbled on an advertisement for the Brijesh Patel Cricket Academy and asked his parents to enroll him.

Patel, a former India batsman, remembers the talented seven-year-old as an overweight boy who was made a wicketkeeper in a bid to lose a bit of flab. He also prospered under the watchful eyes of Ghulam Samdhani, his school coach. But not everything went his way.

At 16, brouhaha over his captaincy of a junior team nearly forced him to quit cricket as he had stopped "enjoying the game". His father convinced him that it was just a temporary phase and he would be better for the experience. And the battle with his weight was yet to be won. The determined Uthappa sweated it out at the Frank Tyson Cricket Academy, losing 13 kilograms in a month. Things were beginning to look up and he was rewarded with a spot in the Junior World Cup squad of 2004. But inner demons were waiting to spring up on the other side.

Venu, Uthappa's father, remembers how Robin was depressed when his World Cup team-mates - Dinesh Karthik, Suresh Raina, VRV Singh and RP Singh - bagged the precious India cap while he was still floundering in domestic cricket.

For solace and strength, he turned to spirituality. "It brings me lot of peace, gives me lot of confidence, knowing that I am close to Him and I've learnt a lot, just reading a lot about God," Uthappa told Cricinfo a few months back. "When I'm batting you can see me mumbling a lot and I am actually making conversation with Him. It has definitely helped me focus a lot more."

Uthappa scored a well-paced 86 on ODI debut © AFP

That focus came to light on a Saturday night in Mohali in 2005. A sizzling hundred in the Challenger Trophy brought him into national reckoning and he soon made his one-day debut memorable with an aggressive 86 against England at Indore. And when he was dropped after just three games, he knew he had to improve his shot selection and temperament. "As a cricketer you learn as the time goes by. You learn by yourself, by self-analysis, start thinking about the game a lot. I kind of know how my mind works, how my body works, and what I need to score runs. I put my life on the line every time I play that one ball."

Thus a picture of a young man, with curious shades of modernity and tradition, emerges. He is brashly confident of his own ability while, at the same time, he doesn't shy from seeking divine intervention. Prior to his debut game, he had painted his jersey to black out the number 26 - a "disruptive" number according to the numerologists - to "ward off the negative energies" and got himself another number for the big game.

Back in 1993, he was watching Anil Kumble bowl in the Hero Cup final when he told his mother, "If he takes a wicket off this ball, I will play for India." Kumble trapped Carl Hooper lbw the next ball and we know the rest.

Sriram Veera is an editorial assistant on Cricinfo