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Robin Uthappa and his life outside comfort zone

Cricket news - Robin Uthappa and his life outside comfort zone

"Ae, yeh Robin Uthappa Karnataka kyun chhoda?" [Hey, why did Robin Uthappa leave Karnataka?] an amused and an equally curious senior administrator of Saurashtra Cricket Association asked the question. Who leaves Karnataka, after all? It's the envy of most domestic players. For very few associations offer the kind of perks and facilities to its players like Karnataka does. Saurashtra, surely doesn't.

The word is that, while making the offer, Robin Uthappa had agreed to play for Saurashtra without charging any professional fees. The official had no clue why Uthappa would do that. But for those who have followed the batsman, knew the switch was coming. His discontent in Karnataka was an open secret and as some claim, also a factor in causing internal division.

"After last year when I felt I was not being valued as a senior player in my side, I thought I had to look at my career with a different perspective, challenge myself as a cricketer. By stagnating, you are only going backwards," Uthappa admits.

Looking to move out of the state where he had played nearly 15 years of cricket was never an easy call. As he looked for avenues outside Karnataka, he wanted the most comfortable space. Kerala became a natural call. "I looked at Kerala because there was a sense of familiarity. I'm also a Malayali and the fact that it is down south (helps in understanding the place's cultural ethos). The decision to move to Kerala was also because I saw a lot of potential in that side.

"I honestly believed that I could add value to the team in a manner that they could win championships. I believed they had no business playing plate for the last five years for the kind of team they have. I believed I could take them out of plate, to elite and maybe even win one-day championship. That's why I offered to go there."

For a long time, it seemed the deal was done and dusted. But then came a rude shock. "It was pretty much confirmed that I was going to play for Kerala and then I sent them an email saying I'll be available and will be very happy playing for them. I was a little delayed because I was on a vacation. I had told them that I will email by July 1, but I emailed them on 4th or 5th of July. And by then, they had secured another player. So they thought because I hadn't replied I wasn't interested anymore. They went ahead and secured Arun Karthik."

While Uthappa remains in the notion that his late response couldn't bag him a place in the side, the rumours floating around is that he had preposterous 'demands', which included a payment of Rs 1 crore, stay in a five-star hotel, a bonus for every century he scores and a team of masseurs and trainers. Uthappa is stunned on hearing out the list and lets out a hearty laugh. "I did ask Kerala for a professional fee. It was agreed upon. It definitely wasn't a crore. All I had to do was get back to them by July 1. I was late, I take responsibility for that and after that, it was about playing cricket.

"At the end of the day, you want to play cricket, add value. I went to Kerela, said I'm interested because I believed that I can add value to that team. So with that confidence, I said I will come with this charge, for a certain amount. Not 1 crore. That's almost a triple of what I asked. Any first-class cricketer who has played 130 games will add that value.

"I definitely said that I would like it to be run a little more professionally. So I said I would like the team to have a trainer, a physio, a masseur because they have a good fast bowling unit. So you want to make sure they recover well. Keeping a few things in mind from the team's perspective, I made a few requests, not demands. Because for me, I was thinking from a point of view of a leader. But that didn't work out."

Whatever the reason was for the deal between Uthappa and Kerala cricket not going through, the former found himself in a dire situation with the very little time for the professional window to shut. Stuck without a team, "I was like 'wow! what's gonna happen now?'"

In a moment of panic, he reached out to as many teams as possible, before eventually agreeing with Saurashtra. As much as Saurashtra Cricket Association was unaware, for the rest it was no more a secret that Uthappa was desperate for a team. "I floated my availability around. A lot of them said 'we will get back to you'. Saurashtra was the one to get back quickly. I just decided 'whoever is going to comeback quickly, I'm gonna go with them'."

Saurashtra accepted him, and given how things stood, he was expected to be a mentor for the young boys. With Cheteshwar Pujara and Ravindra Jadeja out for most parts and Jaydev Shah having limited credibility, Uthappa's achievements stood tall. However, even as he may have come into the side as a big player, he still had a lot to do to earn the respect of the teammates, primary among them was understanding the team culture. It was a challenge he hadn't accounted for.

"Inspite of being in India, this is a completely different culture from where I've come from. This has been a really good experience for me in a manner where I've had to humble myself in a lot of ways. Despite being a senior, I've had to behave like a junior. You need to know to respect the egos of their senior players, who have represented the state for the last 8 to 10 years in spite of me being their senior. For me, that has been a huge learning curve.

"In each dressing room, there is a different dynamics. As a player, you tend to read the dynamics - how the structures of the team lie, who are the go-to people within the setup, who are trusted, who are not trusted.

"Inspite of cricket being a team game, it's a bunch of individuals coming together to achieve a team goal. There are so many dynamics. And when you come with experience to a new place, you have to understand where you stand and give respect to other players who have been there and been performing for so long. If I was in a team and an outsider came to the side, I would expect him to understand and learn what the culture is. This first year has been a learning of the culture that has been in this side."

Today, however, at the end of one Ranji season, Uthappa is in the groove. He has already picked up Gujarati. "No one's required to speak in Hindi or English in team meetings anymore," he says, proud of his latest learning. "Players are comfortable communicating with me in Gujarati on the field. This is something you learn only when you push yourself outside your comfort zone and I've been able to do that."

He is getting the respect in his new team that he craved for in the Karnataka dressing room. He has become a mentor figure in the side and it is a responsibility he is happy taking. "It (Getting the respect) makes playing cricket so much more fun. It's a different kind of challenge. You are able to help other players and carry them along with you. For me as a senior player, I can be an example, add two cents to their careers by adding some value. The boys are so much more receptive here, so much more fun. There are no egos here. Everyone wants to do well for the team."

In looking to give his domestic career a much-needed breath of fresh air, Uthappa has found a nirvana of sorts with his new life exposure. The rejection from the familiar territories of Kerala and the move to a culturally-different Saurashtra, he believes, has been a 'blessing in disguise'. "This experience has been enriching, it has helped me grow as an individual. Being in India, we aren't allowed to go outside and play in other leagues. So our exposure to different cultures and dressing rooms are limited. Here, I've had to receive, understand, soak up so much as a senior player, which has been great for me."

While he is slowly settling into the role of a mentor to some of the younger players in the side, given all the experience he carries, he continues to harbour hopes of making a comeback into the national side. A career which began with a promising 86 on debut followed by a T20 WC win went nowhere. He is however specific on being asked that - "International career or IPL career."

Yes, it's very easy to divide Uthappa's career into two for they have shown a sharp contrast. While his figures in international cricket aren't the greatest, he has been a prolific run-machine in the Indian T20 league. It's almost as if he switches into another mode. Last season was a fine example of that. After a below-par season with Karnataka, Uthappa came out all guns blazing for Kolkata Knight Riders - registering five fifty-plus scores (most by any player).

Speaking about what worked for him with KKR that didn't with Karnataka last season, he says, "The fact that there is no insecurity (in KKR helps). I can just go out there and express myself. There you're not looking to secure your spot, you're going out there to win matches for your team and that's I have done consistently in the IPL. That's the difference," he says taking a subtle dig at his time with Karnataka, where he was dropped in the Ranji quarterfinals.

But it's strange of anyone to be speaking of security in IPL, especially a player who is largely in the domestic setup in recent times. Some of the biggest names in cricket talk about their spot not being secure despite match-winning performances in the IPL. The team combinations are complex and with different attacks and different conditions in every match, often in-form players have also had to sit out.

However, Uthappa believes "That security has come because of my consistency. It's not like I've had a bad IPL or had a rough patch or anything. Overall in the larger scheme of things, I've performed really well, consistently. The shorter formats have been my forte, been extremely comfortable understanding my game, analysing my game. That's one of the reasons I've been in IPL."

His words are well backed by numbers and achievements. In IPL, he has been a prolific scorer, scoring 3778 runs - fifth highest by an Indian. He has won the orange cap in 2014 and been part of a championship side. Surprisingly, in a format that has hailed the innovators and helped their style of play shine with effective results, Uthappa has achieved all of that with his conventional strokeplay.

"It suits me because I play my best when I play to the merit of the ball. I'm a naturally hard-hitting batsman. I trust my range and when the ball is in my range, I know it will go all the way. I have that confidence."

He has been a permanent fixture in the Indian Premier League since its inception. However, in the inaugural season, he was a fresh and an upcoming talent, coming right out of wins in the T20 WC and CB series. He was an India regular then. However, 10 years down the line, while his time in IPL has been quite merry, his 'international' career hasn't gone uphill.

He agrees to that and is in a continuous pursuit to get back into the national scheme of things. He opens up a bit on his philosophy on cricket. "You're never the master of the game, you're always the student. Whether you're a player, a coach, a commentator, you're only going to learn. Because the game teaches you something every single day. It's about how you receive. No one has got the perfect technique. And you're never really an owner of your good form and technique unless you keep practising. You have it as long as you keep working on it. When you stop, you don't own it."

At the moment, his latest work on batting is on mastering his initial movements. It's a process he has been out trying to achieve for as long as he can remember. He gets into the details of the initial movements and says, "It is to make sure I'm ready, flexible in my mind and my body to execute my different initial movements to the different kinds of bowlers I'm facing, depending on how quick they are, depending on the conditions and the wicket. So a lot of factors come into play. To have ownership of all those things is something I'm constantly working on."

While he wants to be 'realistic' about his Test chances, he still feels he can make a comeback in limited overs cricket, and hopefully win anotherworld championship. "The dream of wanting to play for India keeps me going. The dream of wanting to win another world championship keeps me going. That's a dream I believe I will achieve. I need to be lucky as well."

As much as he says he feels '25', he is 32. He has ample time but the clock is ticking faster than ever. Fitness and form aside, it is only motivation that can keep him going in his pursuit to achieve all the dreams he has with his cricket career. While there were a few plans that kept him going so far, it is the birth of his son Neil, which is his latest motivation to push himself.

"I also want to be a good example to my son," he says. "I want to inspire my son on certain levels. I want to be that father, if he ever reads about me or finds out about me, should be proud about how I've played my cricket, the kind of person I am on and off the field."

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