Uthappa returns to dig Karnataka out of trouble
Karnataka 297 for 5 (Uthappa 100, Nair 100, Gautam 89*) v Uttar Pradesh
Robin Uthappa will be happy. Robin Uthappa will be angry. Happy because he scored a century, his first of the season, in his first match back after missing six out of eight matches in the league stage. Angry because he could have converted the century into something much bigger, especially against an Uttar Pradesh attack that had lost its leader and strike bowler RP Singh to a hamstring injury soon after lunch.
Injury had stalled Uthappa's aspirations for most of Karnataka's league campaign. But his goals were re-ignited after he was ruled fit to play the knockouts, and he wanted to make an impact. Today he delivered on the promise.
On a pitch that looked as if someone had used a broad brush to paint it green, RP opted to bowl, and nearly struck with his third ball of the morning, a full delivery swinging into Uthappa's legs from around the stumps. The Karnataka opener had left the first two deliveries and was late to react to the movement. RP was convinced he had Uthappa LBW but umpire Amiesh Saheba disagreed. Uthappa moved away from the crease to regain his focus. Possibly an inside edge had saved him.
But the pressure was on Karnataka. KL Rahul, their best batsman this season, got stuck in a cocoon, failing to open his account for 23 balls before Ankit Rajpoot, who had troubled him with his late away seam movement, finally had him nick one to the keeper.
Amit Mishra then picked up two wickets in two balls, dismissing the pair of Ravikumar Samarth and Manish Pandey for ducks. Samarth sent a return catch that Mishra did well to pouch on his follow-through while Pandey played away from his body to an away-going delivery pitched outside off stump. Nobody needed to remind Uthappa of his responsibility at 14 for 3.
Over the last 18 months Uthappa has worked extensively with former India batsman Pravin Amre, whom he hired as his personal coach. Amre has overhauled Uthappa's technique to the extent of asking him to change his basics. Uthappa now crouches lower at the point of delivery to have a better view of the movement and today he played late.
Uthappa put this changed technique to full use and played a lot of strokes in front of square. He initially focused on rotating the strike. As the bowlers began their second spells Uthappa began finding gaps with much more comfort but still made sure he had watched the ball first before deciding a safe stroke.
By lunch he had brought up his half-century and raised an important partnership with Karun Nair, who had scored a match-winning ton against Delhi in the final round of the league stage.
Immediately after lunch, RP tested Uthappa's patience. Bowling from around the stumps and wide of the crease RP was bowling what looked like innocuous deliveries wide of off stump. But you could sense RP was just laying the bait. His third delivery, he pitched short. Uthappa moved inside the line, attempted to pull, but missed. Between deliveries, he played the shadow pull, instructing himself to keep the ball down. Next ball RP repeated the short delivery. Uthappa pulled again and was caught by Mishra at deep square leg. But Saheba cut short the UP captain's celebrations, signalling no ball. That was the last time RP bowled in the day.
Uthappa recovered from that error and rushed into the 90s with a punched cover drive against the legspinner Piyush Chawla, who was UP's least effective bowler. A steer past the vacant third man boundary off left-arm spinner Ali Murtaza took him to within two runs of his first century of the season, which he soon reached with a single. Uthappa had told Amre earlier this year that he wanted to score a century when it mattered, in the knockouts.
Uthappa deliberately kept his celebrations in check. But he could not curb his eagerness to step out in Murtaza's next over. Murtaza read his intentions early and spun the ball away from Uthappa, who was duly stumped.
Uthappa admitted his mistake, but explained the charge. "I know he has one variation where he releases the ball a lot slower and I thought I could take advantage of that ball," Uthappa said. "He bowls from a lower trajectory; (I had to do something different) for me to get elevation since there was not much bounce for the spinners, and both of them were skidding the ball. So I thought I needed to get slightly away from the ball to hit it over the top. But I got too far away and tried to whack it instead of timing it. That is what I did wrong on that shot."
Uthappa said he might regret his error. It was obvious he was desperate to prove himself, having missed out on the majority of the season. Uthappa knows that moments like these don't come very often. He cannot beat himself up now, wondering what was possible.
Without his century, though, there would have been no platform for Karun Nair and CM Gautam, whose 162-run partnership has now given Karnataka firm control of the match. When Uthappa was out Nair was on a resolute 28 off 131 balls. But the arrival of Gautam, allied with the exit of RP, upped Karnataka's tempo. Like Uthappa, Nair was out immediately after getting to his century, while Gautam ended the day on the verge of becoming the third centurion of the innings.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo