There is a question every athlete on the comeback trail asks himself: How far am I willing to go?
In sport, there is nothing tougher than making a comeback – because a comeback means that you have failed once; it means that you have disappointed yourself and your fans; it means that your skills weren’t good enough; it means there are others better than you. So to make it back – you are essentially required to break down whatever notions you had and start afresh.
Now, that’s easy to do in your early twenties. But to do it after you’ve represented India at the highest level; after you are 26… takes guts and determination. Luckily, for Kolkata Knight Riders and maybe even India, Robin Uthappa had both.
The right-hander currently sits atop the run-scoring charts in the IPL with 613 runs – ahead of Dwayne Smith and Glenn Maxwell.
The journey to the top hasn’t been easy though. It’s been two years since Uthappa left Bangalore for Mumbai – to train under former India batsman Pravin Amre. Now, Bangalore has a certain charm that can lull you into a false sense of comfort but Mumbai, on the other hand, is never that. It is fast, unrelenting but it toughens you up even before you know it.
After KKR’s last game in which Robin Uthappa starred again with a vital 41 at the top of the order – the batsman quietly gave Amre a vote of thanks on national television. But Amre insists that the hard work was all done by Uthappa himself.
“I really didn’t do anything. He moved to Mumbai, he worked hard for two years – it was no overnight success story, he worked hard everyday without breaks, he was completely open to my suggestions and he just wanted to be back,” said Amre in a chat with Firstpost. “So this was all about Uthappa and his desire to get back to his best. Many players talk about doing the right thing but when they crash, they find it hard to re-dedicate themselves. He has done that.”
Amre’s school of batting has been steadily growing – Ajinkya Rahane, Abhishek Nayar, Naman Ojha and Uthappa are all making a mark at various levels. And the one thing that stands out about his wards is how they all seems to have the basics right.
“The one thing I tell them all is that if you have your basics right then you can succeed in any format and at the end of the day, isn’t that the goal… to play in every format. But it isn’t easy to do that. Basics just don’t mean playing with a straight bat. It means much more; it means getting your feet moving, getting in line, judging the length and perhaps most importantly, having the correct mental approach.”
Amre, who has also been named as the Mumbai Ranji team’s new coach, points out those players who are batting at the top of the order in the Twenty20 format have the advantage of time.
“If you bat at the top of the order, you are looking at an innings that is 120 balls long. If you can bat 50 balls and score 70 runs, you give everyone else in the line-up the opportunity to attack from the first ball. KKR’s decision to push Uthappa up the order was big because it allowed him to play his game.
“Now, this is not to suggest that he can’t play the big shots. We have seen him do that before. But this was more about getting into a rhythm and the opening slot is allowing him to do that. It has also allowed KKR to do the same.”
Amre recalled the first meeting with Uthappa – he was prepared to do anything. He wanted it that badly and that pushed him along through the tough times.
“If someone comes to me when they are 18-20, I can break their game down and build it. But when someone is 25-26 and has played for India, it is a slightly more daunting prospect. These guys are professionals, they have played cricket at the highest level and breaking their game down completely is not always the best option. So with Uthappa, we chose to add-on to his game.
“What do you notice when you watch Uthappa bat? Is there anything different? He always had shots and he had areas he liked. We have just ensured that the area isn’t just mid-wicket anymore. He plays more in the ‘V’, but he also can play all around the wicket and that makes him a better batsman.”
Cricket is played on the field but a player’s struggles can often manifest themselves in the mind.
“The only thing that we really worked hard was on the mental approach. We wanted to be positive. Cricket is a tough game for a batsman – one mistake by you, your partner, the umpire and you could be walking back to the pavilion. And that could be your only chance to make an impact to the match. I wanted Uthappa to be at the level where he could get over these bumps and remain positive.”
Amre and Uthappa had a 15 day camp before the start of the IPL and that is where they worked on tuning the right-handers game. Over the last two seasons – Uthappa has been the top-scorer in India’s domestic ODI competition but Amre’s endeavour all along has been to make Uthappa self-sufficient.
“If I can get him to a point where he can understand his game and its shortcomings completely, I think my job is done.”