Saurashtra move a way to challenge myself - Uthappa
Robin Uthappa is busy learning some functional Gujarati online these days. He hasn't picked up much more than kem chho (how are you) and maja ma chhu (I am fine), but is confident of enhancing his vocabulary during the course of the 2017-18 Ranji Trophy season.
Uthappa, 31, has moved from Karnataka, his home, after a 15-year stint. Originally set to sign for Kerala, his search for a new team landed him in Saurashtra. It's a major career decision which Uthappa believes will push him out of his comfort zone. Among the changes he'll have to make is to adjust to the predominantly vegetarian palate at Rajkot, his new home.
"I just felt that I needed a new challenge," Uthappa tells ESPNcricinfo of his decision to leave Karnataka. "At KSCA we had achieved a lot; winning the treble back-to-back was extremely special. I look forward to new adventures and new missions for myself, and I just felt it was an interesting time for me to challenge myself in a new way."
Uthappa believes he should be playing for India. A peek into his social media accounts will show the kind of work he's putting in to maintain peak fitness. He last played for India two years ago and hasn't really had a straight run across formats, largely having to fill in roles given to him. He believes the next best thing for him is to challenge himself in tougher environments.
"Honestly, I believe I should be playing international cricket, and since I am not, I am just trying to find ways to challenge myself," he says. "I would love to play in different conditions all over the world, but today the situation is such that we don't get permission [from the BCCI] to play [T20 leagues] in different parts of the world. I am doing the next best thing to challenge myself - go to another state where I have to fit into the culture, I get a new set of boys to motivate and try and win a championship."
It was during the IPL that he decided to make a move. A forgettable season with Karnataka in 2016-17 - he managed only one fifty-plus score in 12 innings - culminated in him being dropped for a crucial quarter-final clash against Tamil Nadu. Karnataka were rolled over inside two days on a green top in Visakhapatnam. Among things discussed were if the team management erred by not having someone of Uthappa's experience in challenging conditions.
Uthappa isn't sure if the omission contributed to his exit, but admits to being disappointed. "I would be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed. Going into the knockout stages of a tournament, you drop a guy who has played 130 first-class matches for you," he says and chuckles after a pause, before adding there is no bitterness. "Oh no, no, no, I have no hard feelings as such. Karnataka is my state, the people of Karnataka have treated me so well. They have challenged me, they have motivated me. The KSCA and all my team-mates have played a huge role in making me who I am today."
He's particularly thankful to Brijesh Patel, the former secretary, for shaping him from his days as a junior cricketer. "Honestly, without him, I don't think I would have achieved whatever I have today," he says. "I am Brijesh sir's boy and he has always been there to guide me in different ways and I am entirely grateful for all the love and support, and discipline he has inculcated in me. If Karnataka say, 'Rob, we need you to come back. We want you to play with us again… if they really need me, I will definitely come back. But, right now my loyalties are with Saurashtra."
Initially, Saurashtra was far from his radar because a move to Kerala seemed like a done deal, but it eventually fizzled out. "I asked for some time, a certain number of days to confirm with them," he says. "I got in touch with them maybe four days later than the time I had asked them for, and in that window they went ahead and signed somebody else."
For now, he's more than happy at his new home, the excitement of being a part of a talented bunch at Saurashtra is matched by his familiarity with the team's core group. While Uthappa has been team-mates with Jaydev Unadkat and Sheldon Jackson at Kolkata Knight Riders in the IPL, he's good friends with coach Sitanshu Kotak, Cheteshwar Pujara and captain Jaydev Shah. As a group, he feels there is potential to become champions.
"It gives me a serious opportunity to experience a very different culture, a very different way of functioning and they have some really good youngsters there," he says. "These are the things that excite me. That's one of the reasons I chose Saurashtra. It's a wonderful state with some very nice people.
"They have some pretty good talent in the middle-order, some very good allrounders, and if [Ravindra] Jadeja can play a few games for us at some point, we would make a serious bid to win the championship. They even beat Karnataka outright last year. And since we are going to be playing home-and-away, we give ourselves a solid chance as a team."
Uthappa believes that by playing leadership and mentoring roles he would further his growth as well as that of his team. The developments on the personal front - Uthappa and his wife Sheethal are expecting their first child this month - have also made this a particularly exciting phase for him.
"I will be with the team through and through," he says. "I think belief is half the job, and with good players, you just need to guide them to believe in themselves to do what they desire to do. As a senior member, you want to be able to do that instead of just going about things. My job as a senior player will be complete if I can build bonds and make youngsters believe in winning championships. We have seen that in Karnataka and I believe I will be able to do that anywhere I go."
Arun Venugopal is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo. @scarletrun