The past few years saw the growth of positive conversations around issues of mental health. Top names in cricket have been among those who have challenged the stigma around the issue by opening up about their own stories. The latest among these trailblazers is batsman Robin Uthappa. Earlier this month, Uthappa had opened up about having faced suicidal thoughts during his early career. On June 14th, responding to the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, he tweeted: “IT IS COMPLETELY OKAY TO NOT BE OKAY”.
Uthappa, who made his international debut in 2006, has been a very unlucky cricketer. The Kannadiga began his career in style when he leveraged his exploits at the Challenger Trophy and Under-19 scene to replace the Nawab of Najafgarh—Virender Sehwag—and secure a spot in the Indian team. Justifying his selection and filling in Sehwag’s shoes was never going to be easy for a twenty-year-old Uthappa. However, he had a dream debut when he scored 86 runs off 96 balls in the course of a 166-run opening partnership with Captain Rahul Dravid. Uthappa had to compete for a place with established openers like Sehwag, Sourav Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar.
The Indian coach at the time was the inimitable Greg Chappell. Chappell’s tumultuous tenure as coach saw many senior players sitting out matches or being moved to unfamiliar positions. Uthappa got some chances when Ganguly was famously dropped and Tendulkar moved down to the middle order by Chappell. Amidst the chaos, Uthappa was selected to the 2007 World Cup squad, widely considered to be India’s worst World Cup. Uthappa fared poorly, scoring a total of 12 runs in two matches.
He performed much better at the inaugural Twenty20 World Cup the same year, where he scored a memorable half-century against Pakistan after walking in at 39/4. Uthappa was held back by being constantly tussled between batting positions, having had to bat in almost all positions. Uthappa did well as a finisher though, when he was picked in the crucial sixth ODI in the Natwest Series against England at Oval in 2007. Ahead of the match, India was 3-2 down in the seven-match series. Batting at 7 behind Dhoni, Uthappa won the match for India to level the series by scoring an unbeaten 47 off 33 balls even as he was running out of partners at the other end.
A woefully short run
Soon, the likes of Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma emerged and quickly moved ahead of Uthappa in the pecking order. Uthappa was still being tossed around in different positions or dropped from the team for several consecutive series. It seems that the Indian selectors were unsure about the role he could play, despite the fact that the team was looking for a reliable opener for the Champions Trophy 2013. This was a responsibility Uthappa could have successfully taken on as he had averaged 50+ in the previous two Vijay Hazare tournaments including the 2013 edition which had concluded just before the Champions Trophy. However, captain M S Dhoni favoured Rohit Sharma, whose performance in the tournament cemented his place in the Indian team.
Uthappa had three back-to-back excellent domestic seasons under his belt with nine List A centuries. Yet, for a cricketer of his calibre, Uthappa was given a shamefully short run in the Indian team. He made a total of 59 appearances, 46 in ODIs and 13 in T20s.
The unselfish partner
A reason why Uthappa never got his due could be his generosity as a batting partner. Uthappa had always been the unselfish partner, and this would be counted against his regular presence in the Indian team. In the two finals of the 2007–08 Commonwealth Bank Series, Uthappa played second fiddle to Tendulkar, who was in a brilliant form. In the first final, Uthappa and Tendulkar led the charge with their 50-run opening stand. However, Tendulkar did most of the scoring. The situation was similar in the second final, where Uthappa scored 30 runs off 49 balls while Tendulkar got 91 off 121. His oft-forgotten role in Rohit Sharma’s brilliant 264 against Sri Lanka in 2014 is another case in point. Sharma and Uthappa plundered 128 runs off 58 balls. He would go on to play only four more ODIs for India.
Earlier that year, Uthappa had bagged the Orange Cap in the 2014 Indian Premier League and was key to the Kolkata Knight Riders’ (KKR) second IPL win. He was unmistakably in great form. Uthappa tried keeping wickets in the IPL and for Karnataka in the limited overs to add another dimension to him as a player, and he even kept wickets for India in a series, but nonetheless, he couldn’t nail down his place in the team.
A second coming?
It has been five years since Uthappa’s last appearance in the Indian jersey. It has to be said that his international career never really took off. In an interview this May, he revealed that, at the age of twenty-five, he had hired former cricketer Pravin Amre to help him tweak his batting technique so that he could switch to Test cricket. Unfortunately, as Uthappa admits, that move was counterproductive. He never played Test cricket for India, and the tweaks forced him to let go of some of his aggression which was his main asset as a limited-overs specialist.
While a Test match seems out of reach, Uthappa believes he still has a World Cup left in him. “I still have that fire burning in me, I really want to compete and do well. I honestly believe I have a World Cup left in me, so I’m pursuing that, especially the shortest format,” Uthappa said in a recent interview. The 34-year-old also acknowledges the one factor which has largely eluded him throughout his career. “The blessings of Lady Luck or God or whatever you call it….plays a massive factor,” the cricketer says.