For the love of God
"At some point two years ago, he found me and I found him," Robin Uthappa says. "Actually I think we just found each other. And I could communicate with him. And things just happened for me since then. There was a time during the World Cup when he wouldn't talk to me, and that was a really bad phase. But it passed and we're communicating again."
Uthappa isn't talking about his relationship with his captain, coach or mentor. Nor is he referring to his father or a confidante. He's trying to explain his faith in God, the main reason he thinks he has got so far. A lot of sweat has gone into the making of Indian cricket's audacious young hope, but talk to him and you'd think he's destiny's child.
We're at Café Mocha on Bangalore's Lavelle Road, but Uthappa is "fasting". Actually he's not. "I'll have the Cookie Monster. But I want it blended really well. I'm off solids."
His Reebok t-shirt fits neatly, and in his designer shades he seems right at home in the yuppie haven of the coffee shop.
Uthappa is coming off a seven-match one-day series against Australia, one where he attacked with both bat and lip. He kicked the series off in a gung-ho manner ("We'll fight fire with fire.") and didn't mind looking silly midway through it ("Man for man, we're a better side than Australia."). In the one-off Twenty20 in Mumbai, Brett Lee rapped him on the gloves with a bouncer, walked up and howled, "It's a different ball game, isn't it?" Pat came Uthappa's response: "But it's the same bat."
Brave new India or silly, reckless India? "I said we'll fight fire with fire, and we lost the series 2-4," he says, fidgeting with t-shirt, glass, seat. "But we gave our best. This was the best team in the world and we gave them a fight. They probably had the most uncomfortable Indian tour. I don't think they had seen an Indian side talking back so much.
"And I still think we are probably the more talented side on paper. They're very professional, no doubt. They know what to do and stick to the basics. And they make very little mistakes. And that's what makes them successful."
Does the media reaction worry him? "When I'm playing, I don't watch TV," he smiles cheekily. "And I don't read the newspaper reports. I just look at my pictures sometimes and see if the photo is good."
Nobody who meets the upbeat, bubbly Uthappa of today would imagine that he seriously contemplated giving up the game five years ago. A prolific run-getter at the school level, Uthappa couldn't come to terms with the political wrangling commonplace in junior cricket. Medication had made him fat, and fed up with the vagaries of the real world, he was perilously close to throwing in the towel.
"I was a very fat kid. I put on weight because I had to take steroids to overcome epilepsy. At the age of 16, I felt there was a lot of politics which was affecting me and thought I'd give up. I decided to get away from everything and go to Coorg. But my dad always said I should give it a last shot, only because of the kind of talent the Lord had blessed me with."
Enter Makarand Waingankar, a journalist turned coach turned cricket administrator, who was then working as a consultant with the Karnataka side.
"The funny part is, I didn't know he had given up the game," Waingankar, currently the chief administrative officer at the Baroda Cricket Association, says. "But I was surprised that a batsman of such talent wasn't being given more chances. I wanted him to join Frank Tyson's newly launched academy in Bangalore."
Uthappa consented in what was a defining moment. "I worked really hard, lost 12 kilos in a matter of a month, and that's where it all changed. Things started happening for me after that."
Waingankar sounded out Dilip Vengsarkar, then the chairman of the Talent Resource Development Wing of the BCCI. Uthappa was thrown in the deep end, picked for a match between two National Cricket Academy teams (where an emerging Karnataka player was usually given a chance).
He has rarely looked back since. "I did well, was picked for India Under-17, became the highest run-scorer in the tri-nation championship in Sri Lanka in 2002, made it to the Under-19 side for the Asia Cup, and then played the Under-19 World Cup."
|Ultimately it's only about situations. Put me in a situation and I'll adapt|
It was in these Under-19 tournaments, shown on television, where most had their first glimpse of Uthappa. Standing well outside leg stump, he walked across as the bowler delivered, prompting several coaches to write him off instantly. Those who looked beyond saw the ferocious straight punches, which form the bedrock of his game even today.
"The shuffle happened because my batting was still developing. In school I never had an initial movement. I always went on the front foot. At some point I thought I was going too far forward. So I tried to go back and then forward.
"I wasn't mature enough to understand my game that well. You need to train your muscles to go over the same movement constantly. When you're playing a lot, you pick up some bad habits. But it's just muscle memory. And once you make a constant effort, it gets okay.
"The punch down the ground came about because of where I grew up. There's a house in front of the apartment where I stay, and in front of that house was an empty plot where we played. There were roads on either side, so if I had to score it would have to be straight. If I hit over the house and into the gutter, it was six. So I always tried to punch straight." Sessions with Waingankar, where he concentrated on hitting within the width of the sight screen, helped him fine-tune the shot.
The rest, as he says, is destiny. A whirlwind hundred in the 2005 Challenger Trophy showed Uthappa's destructive prowess. Six months later, in his first international chance, he produced the highest score by an Indian debutant.
Chances were hard to come by but he was making people take notice. Eight hundred and fifty-four runs in seven Ranji Trophy games, a firestarting 70 against West Indies in Chennai to seal his World Cup berth, 55 in his first chance on the England tour, a series-levelling 47 not out in the cauldron that was The Oval, and two sizzling knocks in the World Twenty20.
"Destiny, destiny, destiny," is his simple explanation. "There's nothing more to it. When I got selected for India, I was playing corporate cricket for Air India in Bombay. And to be honest, I wasn't batting well. Even the day before the match I was struggling. It was a dead rubber and they decided to play me. It was the last game of the series and if I had been dropped after that not many would have noticed.
"But when I went into bat, I felt as good as ever. And now I hold a record for an Indian debutant. That doesn't happen to everybody. A lot of things that have happened in my life have a lot to do with God. If you see me batting, you'll see me mumbling, saying something. I pray the most when I bat. That's my time of prayer - on the field and when I bat. My love for him has only grown over time.
"Let's take the Oval game. I go in at No. 7, a position I've batted in just once in my life - and that was an Under-13 match - and win a game for my country. How do you explain that? When I went in to bat [with 83 needed] I thought, 'I can really win this game with Dhoni.'"
What comes next is most baffling. "When Dhoni got out, I knew I would win it. I knew this was my game. I knew I had been sent here to win it. The trust in the Lord was enough. Fortunately I had the tail with me and they've been batting brilliantly."
Surely the final two shots - a cute paddle past fine leg and a smashing drive past mid-off - had something to do with Uthappa? "Stuart [Broad] got the long-off up for the final ball. I'd just scooped him and knew he was trying to fool me. I knew he was bringing him forward to make me think it was going to be short. But even if he had bowled a short one, I knew the Lord would help me pull it away. I trusted myself and trusted Him. So I walked down, took it on the full and finished it."
There was a time last year when Uthappa ran the risk of being pigeonholed as a one-day specialist. It was at the start of the season, midway through the opening game against Haryana in Mysore, that he received a jolt. It came from Venkatesh Prasad, the Karnataka coach last season.
"I'd scored a fifty in the first innings and felt happy about it. It was then that Venky came up to me and showed me the list of run-getters in the previous season. I was 62 on the list and he said, 'Do you realise how low that is?' That's when the realisation hit me on the face. It was then that I took it upon myself to take Karnataka to victory in every game. I got a hundred in almost every game after that. Had I played the semis, we would have won that too."
Through the season Uthappa showed an ability to adapt. Often he began in a blaze but occasionally he knuckled down and batted through the day. "I remember the Duleep Trophy game against Sri Lanka A in November last year. VVS Laxman was the captain and he gave me a useful piece of advice before that: 'Just concentrate on staying at the wicket all day. The runs will come'. And when I did that, I ended the day on 141. I didn't even need to think of smashing the ball around."
Some doubts still remain. Can he adapt his game to the bouncy tracks in Australia? Isn't he too much of a front-foot player? "I enjoy the longer version the most. I think I have a decent back-foot game too. I pull and cut okay. I have a good back-foot drive. Ultimately it's only about situations. Put me in a situation and I'll adapt.
"I also think technique is a bit overrated. Steve Waugh didn't have the greatest technique but came with a lot of grit and determination. Viru [Sehwag] is the only Indian to get a triple-hundred. It's all about how you feel inside. It doesn't matter if your batting looks bad - it's about how much you score."
Mention the two tough tours ahead, Pakistan at home and Australia away, and Uthappa's thoughts immediately turn to fast bowling. "They're going to be exciting. Shoaib Akhtar is coming back and I've always wanted to play him. Australia will probably have Shaun Tait in their side, and he's another who will be good to bat against."
You get the feeling Uthappa will be well up to the challenge of whatever those two bowlers, and others down the years, can serve up. After all, he's got help from above.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is an assistant editor at Cricinfo