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Feature

How Robin Uthappa struggled to find himself and succeeded

The India and Karnataka batter, who retired from international cricket recently, spoke about his long-running battles with mental-health issues off the field

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
03-Oct-2022
For a long time, Uthappa believed the way to keep his parents' dysfunctional marriage from ending was to keep playing cricket well  •  Getty Images

For a long time, Uthappa believed the way to keep his parents' dysfunctional marriage from ending was to keep playing cricket well  •  Getty Images

Robin Uthappa has on his right forearm a tattoo that says "I am."
It is a commemoration, he says, of finding himself, of recovery. It is what he pointed to when I asked him to introduce himself on the Stump Mic podcast.
I didn't want to introduce him because over three days of extended conversations, I knew cricket was an important part of his life, part of his oldest memory even, but it is not what he should be defined by. He spoke a lot about the role of spirituality in recovery. He knew who he was. He was at peace with who he was. It was best he told people who he was.
We recorded on the last day of Suicide Prevention Week, which was nothing but a coincidence. The only instrument we had was a phone. We were not in a studio but in my hotel room, a few doors down from his. At 9am sharp he knocked on my door in the oversized co-ords that he loves to wear and changes into the moment he goes off air. He carried two pouches of instant coffee in his hand.
He was fascinated that I found peace in my belief that everything in life is random: good fortune and bad fortune exist but they are random. We debated that before we started recording. I told him I was not going to prod him; he could share however much he wanted to share. I told him about a Jeff Finlin book on recovery that I was reading.
Finlin is possibly the greatest modern Western singer-songwriter without a Wikipedia page. He had a traumatic childhood, battled alcoholism and PTSD, and his work has never made it popularly. JR Moehringer, the Pulitzer-winning writer who, among other things, co-wrote Andre Agassi's autobiography, called Finlin "an undiscovered Bob Dylan". Listen to him. You will find it is no exaggeration.
Listen to the podcast
In his book The Secret of Recovery: an Enlightened Guide to Transcending the Pitfalls of Trauma, Addiction, Codependency and Life in General, Finlin writes of the five koshas or sheaths that make up a human body according to "yogic lore". The first four sheaths are a physical accumulation of human experiences, of reactions to trauma, of addiction centres. For sufferers of addiction, trauma and codependency, Finlin says it is important to access the self beyond these four sheaths.
That is when one really finds themselves, and ceases being just an accumulation of experience and hardwiring. When those in recovery identify themselves through the fifth, spiritual, sheath, they identify as "I am".
"That is what we are trying to recover," Finlin writes.

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As a boy, Uthappa was a prodigy. At 14 he scored a triple-century in the final of an Under-16 zonal selection tournament. When he came back to Karnataka, his home state, he was told he was not being selected because other children and their parents complained he was too "aggressive". They used to think he was over-age. You sit in a room with him and you realise how big he is without being imposing or intimidating. The steroidal medication he took for epilepsy made him grow a little disproportionately. He was a big boy but didn't get as tall as he ought to have been for the size of his limbs.
The son of a gifted hockey player who couldn't realise his potential because of what Uthappa describes as bureaucracy in team sport in India, he quit cricket and went to Coorg with his family, only to be coaxed back by Makarand Waingankar of the newly formed Karnataka Cricket Academy.
Three years later, at 17, Uthappa made his first-class debut and scored 40 off 32 batting at No. 3 on the first morning.
Uthappa has retired from all forms of cricket in India with no international century or Test cap to his name. His most important innings, though, carries on.

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Uthappa was a child trapped in his parents' bad marriage. He was a prodigy who somehow believed - we make weird correlations when we are kids - the only way to keep his parents from imploding was to keep playing cricket well. He played what should have been the best years of his cricket with the responsibility of his family on his mind, the fear their dysfunction would spill out into the open. He envied those with more stable families. and bore the guilt that comes with not wanting to be seen as the child of your parents.
Clinically depressed, given to suicidal thoughts, Uthappa spent his twenties clutching on to dear life. He knew little else. He told me on the podcast of how he eventually had to cut his family off, which took a lot of courage. In his mid-20s he would change his phone number every few months.
The number I had for him was from around 2012. Life was just a haze for him back then. He played in it but doesn't remember anything from the 2011 IPL. I felt bad I hadn't contacted him other than outside nets and on cricket grounds in ten years. I don't like to bother cricketers unnecessarily. I imagine them to be strong, with support systems in place for when they are not strong. Nor am I under any illusion that I am capable of helping.
It is all wrong. Uthappa is a reminder to us that cricketers suffer much the same as others, perhaps even more because of the hyper-competitive environment they find themselves in - which can be at odds with the ethos of a team sport. Not everyone has a support system; thankfully Uthappa had his counsellor in addition to his partner, Sheethal, to help him recover. He is an inspiration to cricketers who are not feeling well, telling them that it is okay to be vulnerable, that help is available and that they don't need to hide their anguish. He is an inspiration to everyone, and not just cricketers, that family dysfunction and mental disorder are not things to be ashamed of; you are better off acknowledging and addressing them.
To cricketers, Uthappa's advice is that they have a professional team: a personal cricket-skills coach and a mental-skills coach. Apart from the cricket-skills coaches, teams should have a psychologist, even if only to be called on in an emergency when cricketers are on tour. The BCCI needs to set up systems to look after the mental health of every cricketer under its ambit, and not let the sheer volume of talent available in the country breed contempt and neglect. That's something Uthappa would love to help set up.

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Knowing what you know, it is impossible to look at Uthappa the cricketer independent of Uthappa the person, but the scorebooks don't make that allowance. They will tell you he averaged around 25 in internationals and around 41 in first-class cricket - meagre returns for a prodigious talent.
At 13 he was already part of the Karnataka U-19 camp, smacking future India and Karnataka bowlers - a good five-six years older - for sixes. When those expecting some respect for days cricket confronted him, he said it was not his fault but that of bowlers who bowled in his zone. Those watching the camp expected him to be an India cricketer in five years. Waingankar, who convinced him to come back at 14 and remained a mentor to him, used to call him Viv.
Uthappa was a new-age batter with scant regard for survival over run-scoring, but he also held the Test cap in high regard. In pursuit of it he hired a personal coach, Praveen Amre, dismantled his game completely and built it from the bottom up. It showed results in two seasons when he averaged over 50, 2014-15 and 2015-16. In the first of those seasons Karnataka successfully defended their triple of Ranji, Vijay Hazare and Irani titles.
The Test cap was not meant to be. In limited-overs cricket Uthappa was forever doomed: the top four was jampacked with Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir and Rahul Dravid, and the three middle-order batters had to be MS Dhoni and two batters who could also bowl. When slots opened up and Rohit Sharma got room to move up the order, Uthappa wasn't mentally there. In hindsight he empathises with the calls leaders had to make, but he would have liked better communication because the cricketer is a human and not a commodity.
Uthappa wasn't everyone's cup of tea. He himself will tell you he was a difficult, unpredictable colleague. And a mischievous one. That was perhaps a manifestation of the angst and turmoil he experienced at home.
He spent the two 2007 World Cups and tours of England and Bangladesh in constant fear of his parents' issues spilling out into the open. All the time he fought fires remotely. When he was dropped from the international side in July 2008, he decided to spend the time before the start of the domestic season actively helping his parents mend their relationship, as opposed to just playing, in the belief that that was what kept them happy. It didn't work. Finances had always been a problem, so he spent his IPL money. As expected, that too didn't help. He gave them time and presence, but that didn't work either. Before he knew, what he thought would be a quick off-season job consumed all of him and half his cricketing life was over.
It was only in the second half of his career that Uthappa found himself. Keeping wicket rejuvenated him on the field. He enjoyed this period, though there was little international cricket available to him. He retires knowing he is a T20 World Cup champion and a two-time IPL winner. He still loves cricket. More leagues outside India hopefully await.
Uthappa knows the pitfalls of mental health never disappear, but he is confident he can stay vigilant. Most importantly he knows: "I am." It is a state of bliss that doesn't need scorebooks.
If you or someone you know has thoughts of suicide or self-harm, know that there is help available. Please call one of these helpline numbers (India)

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo