Uthappa meets Amre challenge
On Wednesday afternoon, Pravin Amre, the former India batsman, set Robin Uthappa a challenge. Amre asked Uthappa to bat a minimum of 18 overs in Kolkata Knight Riders' home match against Royal Challengers Bangalore. Uthappa went one step further by playing out the entire 20 overs and finishing with his highest score in the IPL - an unbeaten 83, which proved to be the match-winning innings.
"I asked him to play till the end of the 18th over. He gave me the bonus by staying till the end of the innings," Amre, Uthappa's personal coach, told ESPNcricinfo. "My motive for asking him that was because I was sure he would go past Glenn Maxwell as the highest run-maker in the tournament. That would give him more satisfaction."
This was Uthappa's fifth half-century this season and helped him snatch the orange cap from Maxwell. Uthappa now has 572 runs from 13 innings at an average of 47.66 and a strike-rate of 137.50. An ecstatic Uthappa went on to initially apologise to his coach and his team for not being able to convert his starts in earlier matches before dedicating the orange cap to Amre.
"A student like him is a coach's delight. You feel great when your work is recognised by your student. That satisfaction is different," Amre said. Amre, who was recently brought back for his second stint as Mumbai coach, followed the match on TV at his home in the city and the pride and emotion of the moment was evident in his comments.
Amre said this knock was his favourite. "He was getting the starts but the major challenge was to play all the 20 overs. To stay and play the 120th delivery is the biggest challenge in that format because you have to maintain a particular run-rate. Every pitch is different, every attack is different and to still perform in so many back-to-back matches was really nice to see."
The icing on the cake for Amre was delivered by Uthappa when he punched an immaculate, lofted straight drive against Mitchell Starc for a four. "The way he hit that last ball with a pure cricketing shot. He anticipated that last ball really well and did not go for a big six. He has been consistently hitting boundaries without going for the big strokes. The whole purpose of us coming along was to make sure he would play the right strokes."
Amre said he had emphasised on playing with the full face of the bat. In the past, Uthappa's bat-face would close as he went for his strokes, thereby mistiming or making costly errors. "Today the other stroke I enjoyed watching was when he hit the spinner (Yuzvendra Chahal) for a six with a straight elbow and the full face of the bat. Earlier, he used to hit over midwicket effortlessly. But he has become better at timing and playing technically correct shots."
Uthappa appointed Amre as his personal coach in 2012. The pair worked diligently in this two-year period, with Uthappa travelling constantly to Mumbai where Amre conducted extensive drills. The success of the partnership became evident when Uthappa played a crucial role in Karnataka finishing with a historic treble in the domestic season.
The most important point Amre has hammered constantly into Uthappa's mind has been to keep it simple, even in T20. "I firmly believe your basics have to be correct for any format but more for T20. You can then survive and also be a match-winner. Normally in T20 players try to play extraordinary cricket. But for talented players like Robin if they stick to play normal cricketing strokes they will end up with an extraordinary performance."
Amre had watched Uthappa fail as a middle-order batsman in four of his first five innings this season during the initial phase in the UAE. But once Uthappa asked the team management and got back to his favourite opening position, he became highly consistent. In eight successive innings at the top of the order, Uthappa's lowest score has been 40. "He has created opportunities as an opener and made use of the opportunity of being an opener," Amre said.
Uthappa's performances have led Knight Riders into the playoffs after their early wobbles in the UAE. According to Amre, Uthappa has crossed the first barrier. His next hurdle would be to take forward the momentum into the playoffs. "The knockout (stage) is a different tournament and that is why he has to keep calm. His contributions will again become important for his team so it is time for him to forget about the league stage and start from scratch."
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo