Robin Uthappa's biggest strength may be that he always tries to remain positive, never afraid to chart a new path as long as he believes it will take him to a happy place in cricket. When he started in the game, he had to unlearn his natural technique as he pursued the dream of playing Test cricket. Now, at 35, Uthappa has new goals. This IPL he will turn up for three-time champions the Chennai Super Kings, who bought him in a trade with the Rajasthan Royals, who released him after just one season. Uthappa says he is looking to score 1000 runs in a single IPL season, an unprecedented feat. He talks to us about why he was made to be an opener, the challenges of batting in the middle order, and finding himself in a team with players he started his cricket career with.
Playing for Chennai Super Kings. Reuniting with MS Dhoni, your India team-mate and captain in the 2007 World T20. You were young men then. Now both of you are fathers. Are there tales of all kinds to swap?
(Laughs) It is different, though, right? [Dhoni] has a girl, and I have a boy; raising girls and boys is entirely different! But, yeah, it's been a while, and there was always a desire for me to play with him before he retires. I'm really happy that is coming to fulfilment.
Our relationship is such that when we are not in touch, we aren't. But when we do get back in touch, we kind of pick up from where we left off - the affection and the closeness is always there. Our wives are very close friends now. So there is a care and concern that goes beyond cricket. Just to be able to play cricket with someone that you share emotions for outside of the sport is phenomenal. So you know that when you are playing, you are going to put everything on the line for that person.
And just for the leader that MS has been, yaar. For the knowledge that he has, the commitment and the desire that he inspires within a group is phenomenal. And you have just seen him grow and grow, get better like fine wine.
Not just him. Even guys like Suresh [Raina] and [Ambati] Rayudu. Rayudu was actually my first captain when I played for India Under-17. Suresh and I played for the country at the same time: we went on a Under-17 Asia Cup to Sri Lanka. So we know each other from the age of, like, 15. And here we are 20 years later, playing together. So it just brings back a lot of fond memories, a lot of feel-good factors.
And when you play for a team like CSK, who have done so well, got the kind of support that they have and the reputation they have, it just brings everything [together] beautifully. You really want to go out there and add value and make a difference to that side.
"The Super Kings breed security within the group, and when you do that, players will do anything for you because they are not focusing on their own performance, they are focusing on trying to win games for you"
What did you feel when you heard about the trade?
I was extremely happy, because when a team like CSK puts faith in you - and they know how my previous three seasons have been, [when] I've batted in the middle order - you want to go out there and put everything on the line and give your best.
I was in Mumbai [representing Kerala in the Vijay Hazare Trophy], when I got to know about the trade and I called my wife [Sheetal Goutham, former India tennis player] and told her. She is like: "You have worked so hard, and you've always gone out there and been as honest as you can and taken up any challenge that has come your way. And it is the way of God and the universe [rewarding you for what] you have done as a human being in the past to have a team like CSK put their faith in you."
Have you spoken to Dhoni?
He, in fact, called me. He said, "I want you to know that I didn't make the decision about you coming in here. It was actually the decision of the leadership group, which involved the coaches and the CEO." He also said - and that's what I love about him - "I didn't want anyone to think that I was the one picking you. I wanted you to get into the team with your own ability and with your own skill. And when it came to me, I said, please ask everybody else in making the decision about you. Because anyone might feel 'because MS is there, Robin got here'."
It is amazing, right, when there is that level of honesty. I truly appreciate that. For me, I know that I have gotten there by my own skill, by my own credibility. That is what I love about MS. You want to play for a leader like that, who gives you that confidence that, "Hey, you have come in here by your own credibility. I've done nothing."
You have been an IPL champion during your time at the Kolkata Knight Riders, in 2014. Only Mumbai Indians and the Super Kings have won more IPL titles than the Knight Riders. What is it about the Super Kings you always admired?
One of the things I've always said about teams like CSK or Mumbai Indians is the kind of consistency that they have in their players. What they build in a group is security, so you know that the 1st XI is going to play at least six or seven games before a change. Something has to go drastically wrong for there to be a change - at the minimum you get at least five games before there's a change in the side. When you do that, players will do anything for you because they are not focusing on their own performance, they are focusing on trying to win games for you. Even in a [poor] season like last year, I don't think [Super Kings] made a change in the first four or five games.
For instance, what they did with Shane Watson in that season , where he just didn't get runs for 14 games. Come the knockouts and he got a hundred and he played such an important role in them winning that 2018 championship. That epitomises a team like CSK.
You will, no doubt, want to open?
Oh yeah, absolutely. That's where I know my stuff. I know how to get the team off to a good start, I know how to win games from that place. It comes very naturally to me. It is something that I've done my entire career. I have been open to taking up the challenge of batting in the middle order, but it is not something that comes naturally to me. It is not something that is comfortable.
Why do you think teams like the Knight Riders and the Royals wanted to bat you in the middle order?
KKR, yes. That was more about moving on from the brand of cricket that we played when Gautam [Gambhir] was captain. One of the reasons I was moved down to No. 3 was because they wanted to get off to explosive starts, which was the communication that was given to me.
And then when Shubman Gill came into the fray, in 2019, he was batting at No. 7. They wanted to ease him in so to speak. But somewhere down the line in that tournament, there was a big communication gap. And suddenly, the night before a game, they told me I am batting at No. 4. That changes the whole scenario a little bit, because batting in the top three and batting from four down are very different mindsets.
And then that game against CSK, I got out to the first ball. I saw a ball that I felt was there to be hit and I tried to hit it and got out, and I immediately got dropped from the team. Again, no communication as to why I was dropped. And then things kind of went south.
"Dhoni called me and said, 'I didn't want anyone to think that I was the one picking you. I wanted you to get into the team with your own ability and with your own skill'"
Automatically Shubman came in at No. 3, did well, and now he has progressed to opening the batting. Once the 2019 season got over, when Baz [Brendon McCullum, the Knight Riders' head coach] took over the side, the communication was that they were going to keep me. And I think a day before the  auction, I got a call from Baz saying that they are going release me because they were moving in a different direction.
With the Rajasthan Royals, they told me well beforehand that they would be looking at me batting in the middle order. And I felt, okay, let me take up this challenge. It didn't serve anyone's purpose when in the first five or six games we were three down for absolutely nothing in the first four overs. And then I go and bat when the team is 30 for 3.
The games in Sharjah, we got off to a flyer, but games outside, we were like three down in three overs. And then you are doing a repair job. I tried to communicate to them that I can open the batting, get the team off to a good start. By the time that came around, it was only the seventh or eighth game. And once I opened the batting, we started getting off to better starts.
But they [Royals] are a team that has always bred youngsters. They have a few youngsters in that group that are openers: Yashasvi Jaiswal and Manan Vohra. And you have guys like Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes, who want to open the batting. They have guys who have been in the side a long time, so they probably felt that if they have Robin in the side and he has to open the batting, that changes everything for them. Otherwise I don't play, because I don't serve a purpose in the middle order. That's why they decided to part ways with me, which is fair enough, which is what I thought happened.
But I communicated to them that I know very well where I can perform well for the team and get the team off to a good start. And I did that, opening the batting. And I've done that in the past. If you have seen my inconsistencies in the IPL, they have happened only when I bat in the middle order, not when I'm opening the batting.
Do you think the role the opener performs has changed?
The change that has come about is that it has become really role-specific, where they don't really care about the wicket anymore. The value of the wicket has really gone down and the value of being explosive has gone up. So if you are an opening batsman, what you do in maybe the first six to ten overs is what is critical now, the explosive start you give: are you giving a start of 60-65 [runs in the Powerplay] with minimum wickets falling.
Again, it is a fine balance. Getting off to a massive start, where you get 80 for 1 or 80 for no loss in six overs, the chances of that happening are a lot less than getting, say 50, 55, 60 in six overs today
And that is where strike rates come in. Are you on board with that?
In the last six years, since 2015, you would have seen the game change drastically, especially as far as batting is concerned. You will see that there are guys specifically in the team for a certain role. Like a Chris Lynn: he is there for the first four to six overs. Like Sunil Narine: his role is defined only for the first six overs. Anything he does beyond that is a bonus.
Someone like Hardik Pandya, epitomises a finisher's role. [Kieron] Pollard, for that matter, again… Guys like them, teams are looking at them playing only in the last six to seven overs. They don't want to use them before that.
Like Andre Russell.
He is specifically there to play that role between overs 15 and 20. When I was in KKR, in 2016-17, you felt like if you gave Russell more than eight overs, you are probably giving him too much to think [about] and he will probably not perform. And with the onset of T10 cricket it has become even more intense, the specificity of the role.
No one expects you to bat 20 overs and score a hundred now. If you have batted for ten overs and the team's score is 120, you have done your job.
"If I am not competing to win then what am I doing? I am not playing for myself. I would have played tennis if I wanted to play for myself"
Chris Lynn made an interesting remark during the PSL recently: he said he would rather focus on the one-percenters, which is executing his role, and not focus on the strike rate. Do you agree?
I am not actively thinking about the strike rate, honestly. I am thinking of getting the team off to a good start. Batting is a challenging job in the first six overs. So for me what matters is: are my partner and I getting the team off to a good start? Are we getting the 50-55 [in the Powerplay] without the loss of a wicket? And then from there are we able to extend that good start into something that takes us into a good middle-overs phase?
Today people don't even discuss that middle phase too much. In 2014 when we [Knight Riders] won the championship, a lot was discussed about how we are going to play our cricket between overs seven and 14. If you noticed, KKR played a lot of good cricket between those overs because we got off to good starts, and Gauti [Gambhir] and I made sure in that segment we are actually playing a little high-risk cricket and trying to get a few boundaries, but at the same time focusing on singles as well.
Is it team-specific also? Rohit Sharma bats the same way you would like to - bat deeper because he has the advantage of power-hitters in the middle and lower order.
Yeah. At the base of it, in T20 cricket it is a fact that if you don't lose wickets, you end up getting 180-plus. You need one guy to anchor it down for you, saying, "I'm holding one end up, the others are going." So if that guy gets off to a great start and then is just feeding strike to the guys coming in, but at the same time getting the odd boundary, you know the team will get 180-plus. It does not matter how you get to 180-200.
Is there a kind of discomfort with this new approach where batting in T20 cricket has become role specific?
No, I actually welcome it. If you don't evolve, you die. What challenges me, grows me.
You are 35. Normally one would think it is the end of a batsman's career around this age. But then you look around: Chris Gayle is 41, Dhoni is 39, Harbhajan Singh is 40, Dwayne Bravo is 37. Imran Tahir will soon be 42. How are you looking this season, as a fresh debut for the last part of your career, or are you on the final chapter?
I honestly feel I am at the peak of my batting prowess at the moment. I feel like the best years are lying ahead of me. Look at Roger Federer. He is 38 and having spent a year outside of his sport, he is coming back, playing at a very high level. So age is just a number. People like Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid have been pioneers in defining that. Rahul bhai played till he was 39, paaji [Tendulkar] played till he was 41. Today you see guys like Gayle following that, MS following that.
The thing about a career in sport is, you can only play it for that long. Once you stop, you can never play again. So you want to play for as long as you physically can and as long as you truly love and enjoy the game. I love the game. I am enjoying competing. I am enjoying winning. I am enjoying adding value to every team that I play. As long as I am doing that, I will play.
Do you agree that performing this season is the key for your future?
Of course. Performing every season is key. Those are the things that you recognise. Now, if I was 21 years old and I had three seasons that didn't go well because I was made to bat in the middle order, no one would have cared. It matters now because I am 35.
What is the change you want to bring in your batting?
I have really hit a sweet spot with the way I am batting right now. There is a deeper understanding of my batting that has happened over the last couple of years because I have kind of reverted to what was naturally my technique. I unlearned what was my natural technique and learned a new one to serve my pursuit of the Test cap. Around 2017 I decided to revert to my natural technique, to what I was born with, and it has taken me a few years. My aim is to play the role of a match-winner irrespective of the role that is defined for me.
What record would you like to break in the IPL?
Ha! To be the first guy to score 1000 runs in an IPL season. One of the things I consciously do as a human being is try to push myself outside of my comfort zone so that I can experience growth. I think that's one thing that drives me in life as a person. I am really looking forward to that.
Isn't it scary to raise that bar?
What do I have to lose? I am just going to go out and have fun, man. If I can do that, and when I do that, you know for sure my team is going to win. That's what I want: I want to win. If I am not competing to win then what am I doing? I am not playing for myself. I would have played tennis if I wanted to play for myself.