Robin Uthappa © Getty Images
Following an exceptional domestic tour, Robin Uthappa has been back in contention for a slot in the national team yet again. In an interview with Abhishek Mukherjee for CricketCountry, Uthappa elaborates on how the past two years have changed him completely as a batsman.
Hailed as a star from his teens, Robin Uthappa had made an excellent start to his international career, scoring a brisk 86 — still the highest score by an Indian debutant in One-Day Internationals (ODIs). However, his form deserted him a couple of years down the line, and he found himself out of contention from mid-2008 onward. Following an exceptional domestic season for Karnataka and Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR), however, Uthappa roared back into form, breaking into India’s ODI side for the recently concluded Bangladesh tour.
In an exclusive interview with CricketCountry a week before India A’s tour of Australia, Uthappa takes a trip down memory lane, re-living his schooldays, memories of sharing a dressing-room with his childhood heroes, his ODI career, and the reason behind his near-magical transformation over the last two years.
CricketCountry (CC): What prompted you to become a cricketer?
Robin Uthappa (RU): Ever since I can remember I was in love with cricket. My family was completely into hockey, and were keen that I took up an individual sport, but I took to cricket at the age of seven.
CC: You were already a star by the time you had made your debuts in Ranji Trophy and for India Under-19. You made it to India Under-17 and made your Ranji Trophy debut a few days after your 17th birthday. How difficult was it to handle popularity at that age?
RU: The general impression was that I was gifted, but my coaches pointed out that there were certain glitches in my technique. I played so much cricket those days, and school cricket in Bangalore was so competitive, that I grew up knowing that I was normal.
CC: What is sharing a dressing-room with the likes of Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble like?
RU: They used to be my heroes when I was young. It was a dream-come-true to share a dressing-room with them when I was still a teenager. I was awestruck, but I managed to pick up things during my days with them. When they were at the nets, I used to watch them intently, ensuring I picked up whatever I could. Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble, Javagal Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad, Sunil Joshi were nothing short of exemplary for Karnataka. In fact, they raised the bar so high that we were forced to maintain that.
CC: You had a special ODI debut. You scored 86, still the highest score by an Indian on ODI debut, before you were run out. What was it like, opening batting with your captain and state teammate?
RU: The international debut was like a dream. I felt like I was in front of the ocean that was international cricket. All through my teens I had dreamed of opening batting with Rahul, and it was an amazing feeling when it actually came true. I was doing well, but was unfortunately run out. Sharing a dressing-room with Rahul [Dravid] was always special. Other than being an exceptional batsman and role model, he is also a great human being, and is an excellent influence.
CC: Your second T20I was the World T20 2007 encounter against Pakistan at Kingsmead that led to a bowl-out. You along with Virender Sehwag, S Sreesanth, Irfan Pathan, and Harbhajan Singh were in the list of five; India hit three out of three while Pakistan missed all three. You were the third Indian bowler to be used after Sehwag and Harbhajan. Did you do nets for that separately? Was it decided beforehand that you will be one of the five?
RU: Yes, we did practice bowl-outs; in fact, our net sessions started with bowl-outs. I started bowling, and told the team management “whether you like it or not, I’m gonna bowl.” So it was more of me snatching the ball rather than a decision by the management!
CC: You used to move up and down the crease as well as sideways a lot in your initial days. The approach was adopted by batsmen around the world these days, especially after the popularity of franchise-based Twenty20 tournaments. Do you think you had appeared on the scenario five years too early?
RU: I do not think I can be the best judge of this. I had started moving down the crease after watching Matthew Hayden bat. I tried it a couple of times in the nets and it came off, so I decided to stick to it. I also played the scoop a lot.
CC: In the earlier days you used to shift your balance on the back-foot as the bowler delivered, but you tend to shift the balance to the front-foot these days. What prompted you to make that decision?
RU: I had found a very good coach in [Pravin] Amre Sir. We decided to take my game back to scratch, and revise my technique altogether. That was where it all started. Having said that, I have not discarded the back-foot movement altogether: on the bouncy pitches of Australia and South Africa it may come handy, so I will adjust accordingly.
CC: But you were not really young when you changed this. Now you are prepared to re-adjust at will. How does one manage to change that, given that the initial shift of balance is a reflex action?
RU: It is amazing what the human body can be trained to do. Not only did I lose 20 kg in the past couple of years, but I also broke a lot of other barriers in the last couple of years. I believe that if you really want solutions, you can get the solutions.
CC: Of course, that was not the only change you underwent. You were always a bottom-handed batsman, but when you came back in the new avatar, we saw you emerge as more of a top-handed batsman. Where did that come from?
RU: You are right. I was always a right-handed cricketer, which meant that though I was strong on the leg-side, my off-side strokes were restricted. As I said, along with Amre-Sir, I stripped apart my entire batting style and restructured it from zero. This not only improved my off-side play, but also improved my technique, especially on Indian pitches. Of course, I will have to adjust my strokes on bouncy tracks.
CC: How big a role was Mr Amre in this evolution?
RU: Oh, his contribution was immense. I actually moved base to Mumbai to be in touch with him all the while. Whenever I was not playing Ranji Trophy or Indian Premier League (IPL) I stayed in Mumbai. I practiced at Khar Gymkhana so frequently that they were kind enough to grant me Honorary Membership. I also practiced at the Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA) Ground (Brabourne Stadium). The wickets in Mumbai are certainly the best in the country.
CC: Karnataka has had a phenomenal season. What was the secret for their success?
RU: Not only did we believe in ourselves, we also believed in the team as a unit. All of us wanted to play at the highest level and emulate each other on field, which created a healthy competition in the side. The atmosphere in the dressing-room was excellent.
CC: You had an outstanding domestic season too. How do you consider your chances of making it to the Test side?
RU: Oh, I quite fancy my chances. My technique and temperament have improved since my previous stint for India. It is only a matter of time that I will make a comeback. I was also unfortunate to have missed a few Ranji Trophy matches this season. Had I played all matches it would definitely have helped my cause. Having said that, I am glad things are coming my way one by one.
CC: Things really went your way in IPL as well with 660 runs at 44.00 and a strike rate of 137.79 and you were also a clear winner of the 2014 Orange Cap. You were elevated to the opener’s spot by the KKR think-tank midway through the series. What had prompted the promotion?
RU: Once I came back to India, the team management decided that my style of batting could be utilised best at the top. I enjoyed the responsibility, and runs came my way.
CC: What are your expectations for the upcoming tour of Australia, where you are leading India A in the quadrangular?
RU: Oh, it will be very cold, but I am really looking forward to it. The tour will definitely help me hone my technique.
CC: Do you fancy your chances to be back in Australia in six months for India’s Test series?
RU: Yes. I am determined to get there in six months.
CC: Thank you, Robin for your time. It was a pleasure talking to you.
RU: Thank you.
(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Deputy Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in and can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)