“It’s about providing my child with the luxury of basics.”
Even as Robin Uthappa puts these words together over the phone, you can get a feel for how much he has changed by just tuning into his voice. There’s an unmistakable roundedness now. The chariness has waned. He now sounds like the man he had obsessed about becoming.
When the transformation is brought to light, he laughs: “It’s probably just responsibility, man. Fatherhood changes everything.”
That could explain the uneasiness in his gut when he was without a job for a few months last year. He didn’t know how to handle his family, now with Neale Nolan in tow, without the once-steady source of income from the Karnataka State Cricket Association.
Before the start of the 2017-18 domestic season, Uthappa didn’t feel like be belonged to Karnataka cricket anymore and decided to part ways. He “obviously” reconsidered it a fair few times, but despite the cravings, he ripped the band-aid in haste to kick-off the moving-on process.
“I had to look out for myself,” he says almost defensively. “I was disappointed that I was left out of the quarterfinal in 2017, but I think that was my doing. I can’t blame anyone else for how things worked out with the KSCA. The decision to move was mainly because of my family and it came to that point because I think I crossed the boundary and gave them (KSCA) a reason to drop me from the side.
“I did it in the best interest of the team, but I still had no business overstepping the line. That wasn’t my jurisdiction. I shouldn’t have done that and I have to have full ownership of it. I think I was too close to the boys then to understand that I was overstepping the line. At the time though, I felt like I was left out and my insecurity led me to feel like I had no future there.”
Even before the KSCA nostalgia died out, he was in talks with the Kerala Cricket Association and the deal nearly came through. Much to Uthappa’s discomfort though, it didn’t happen as planned. Time was spent contemplating in confusion, but eventually, a call from the offices of the Saurashtra Cricket Association rang through the Uthappa household.
There was relief, he now had a team, but reality swooped in just as swiftly. He was going to be a professional cricketer for a team over a thousand miles from a wide-eyed, six-month-old toddler, who was growing increasingly accustomed to his father being by his side.
“That was the toughest decision I had to make, but after discussing it with my family, I knew it was the right thing to do,” reminisced the former India batsman. “It was hard for some time but in a strange way it brought us closer. Now, we value our time together so much more. I think it’s that much more beautiful because of it. I really appreciate the time I give them and they appreciate it too. I wanted to be there through each of Neale’s big moments, and luckily so far I haven’t missed any… yet.”
What recurs in that very moment, possibly a thought on repeat since packing his bags for Saurashtra, is that he is bound to miss a fair few landmark moments in his child’s life.
“I guess I can only do everything in my power to try and be there. But the good thing is, if you look past all that it forces me to change personally, I am part of a very good team,” he says, trying to convince himself just as much as the one lending him an ear.
After a relatively poor 2015-16 season, Uthappa was dropped from the squad for the Ranji Trophy quarterfinal. At the time, he believed that he, as the senior statesman in the side, had every right to be there despite a drop in numbers. When that didn’t happen, he wasn’t too sure if he would ever get another chance to be the force he had been before. He wasn’t too keen to play second fiddle to the younger lot either.
Ego is a tough beast to lay to rest. Especially when you have 6,865 runs from 101 matches at 41.85 with 18 hundreds and 33 fifties, and you’re asked to take the backseat by the team you’ve scored all those runs for. But you can tell that these wounds are not inflicted – self-inflicted mostly – only by the drop, it’s also because his sense of team was questioned.
“When I think back I see what I did wasn’t right. I had no business questioning administration,” he rues. “I did, however, do all this because I was too close to see anything else. I couldn’t see things objectively. I felt like they were questioning my loyalty when they actually weren’t. My numbers weren’t good and they dropped me. Quite simple really.”
When asked if he could have worked out his perceived differences with the KSCA. “I would have loved to, but I had to get playing time. I wasn’t sure of that. It just so happened that the big Indian Premier League Auctions were this year. If it wasn’t for that, I would have stuck around and worked it out with KSCA. KSCA has given me everything and I think they would have given me more but I just wasn’t seeing it like that.”
Uthappa adopted the same all-for-the-team stance when he was working out a deal with Kerala. “It’s weird how people made me out to be some gold digger. I didn’t ask for a crore or whatever exorbitant sum people claimed I did. I asked for what any cricketer who has played first-class cricket for 15 years would,” he lashed out, when asked about rumours of him demanding nothing short of seven-star treatment. “I was asking for things like a physiotherapist and a masseuse and so on but all of that was for the team and not for me. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have done that. I shouldn’t have wandered outside my jurisdiction. I should’ve just focussed on playing cricket.”
Although Uthappa didn’t divulge the nature of the deal he penned with Saurashtra, that it went off amicably is easy to gauge from his tone. The on-field numbers in his opening season weren’t nearly as flattering but he didn’t mind it. He called it the “acclimatisation period” and insisted that by the time he got comfortable, the team was done with its Ranji campaign. He scored 325 runs in six games at 40.62 with three half-centuries.
“It’s tough when you move out of a system you’ve worked with and around since you’re 17 years old. In a way, it makes me hungrier because here I know I have to start from scratch and prove my point. There’s no comfort in history,” he offered. “Saurashtra is a great team to be a part of. It’s almost like a family here. Everyone looks out for everyone and that’s something I’ve always wanted to be a part of.”
He didn’t do well in the Vijay Hazare Trophy (95 runs from six 50-over games) or in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy (100 runs from four 20-over games), but he still felt he added value to the team. Almost as if to validate this positive outlook, Kolkata Knight Riders spent a whopping Rs 6.4 crore to Right-to-Match him for the eleventh edition of the Indian Premier League.
“One of the biggest reasons for my success with Kolkata is that I am loved and I am given the security I need. It’s very important that I am made to feel at home. If that happens, runs come naturally,” he held.
If Uthappa earned a buck for each time he mentions security and love, he would have made his IPL fee two times over. Though his upbringing saw him come through the ranks without many adversities worth noting, he was always looking for a caring hand to guide him. When he didn’t get that, or a semblance of stability along the way, he shook and it reflected in his cricket.
“I never got to play in one position. The longest I held to my position was for three games. That does not help someone like me,” he rued, referring to his stint with the Indian team.
His One-Day International record reads 934 runs from 46 games at 25.94 and a strike-rate of 90.59, and his T20I figures stand at 249 runs from 13 matches at 24.90 and a strike-rate of 118.00.
“Having peace of mind and peace of soul is absolutely integral to my personality. I don’t like it when things are haphazard. I like it when things run smoothly. When you believe that things are going well then you can do special things. It’s all about the kind of energy you put in. What you get in return is going to be similar to what you put in,” he said.
That does explain why he has had an amazing run with Kolkata since turning out in the now-familiar purple and gold. In his debut season with the outfit, he won the Purple Cap with 660 runs from 15 games, including the record (11) for most number of consecutive innings with a score over 40. Since then, his numbers have dipped but Kolkata considered the 32-year-old valuable enough to want to use a Right to Match card on him at a heady price.
“I have been with them (Kolkata) for a long time and I know how they work. It all comes back to security. I thought I was over Kolkata’s budget at one point but they bid for me and I am grateful to them because I have always wanted to stay put with one team for a long time,” he said.
While Kolkata puts “food on his table” for the moment, Uthappa still hasn’t given up on what he refers to as the “ultimate dream”. His ambitions of playing for India are far from over.
“When I feel like I don’t have that intensity left, I will just stop playing. I am hoping I get noticed. Right now, I’m not thinking about anything that I cannot control. I can only control how I play and that’s all the focus is on.”
In this sense, Uthappa’s clarity is refreshing. It’s the journey he’s focussed on, not the destination. That attitude spills into the way he speaks about his batting too. It’s not nearly as technique-driven anymore and it isn’t always about the mistakes. He understands and accepts who he is and where he stands, and that’s evolution in itself. Perhaps, fatherhood does change a man.