September 2007, Robin Uthappa has travelled as part of the Indian cricket team for the inaugural ICC World T20. Not many have given India a chance. MS Dhoni has captured the imagination with his batting but his captaincy is untested. The rest of the squad is also made up of names that are either on the fringes or are yet to get a chance to establish a foothold in international cricket.
India’s opening game against Scotland is washed out. Their next, a clutch clash against Pakistan, has attracted a billion eyeballs even before a ball has been bowled. Apart from their fabled rivalry, both teams are also trying to vanquish the ghosts of the 2007 ICC Cricket World Cup, where both were dumped out in the group stages. So, there’s a fair bit of pressure on both sets of players, especially the Indians because of how many big players are missing and considering this is as much a venture into cricketing unknown as any in recent memory.
India get off to the worst possible start. The third ball of their innings sees Gautam Gambhir advance down the track and offer a return catch to Mohammad Asif. In the third over, Asif gets one to jag into Virender Sehwag, who only manages to drag the ball back onto the stumps. The Asif show is far from over, though. In his next two overs, he also accounts for Dinesh Karthik and Yuvraj Singh, leaving India tottering at 36/4.
At the other end, Uthappa, who is batting in T20I cricket for the first time, is watching the carnage unfold. At the same time, you can almost hear murmurs back in India – murmurs that they should have sent a squad filled with their big-ticket superstars and that losing to Pakistan should never be accepted, irrespective of who is out on the park.
Uthappa, though, does not bother one bit. It is a situation where a capitulation would not have been held against him. It is, at the cost of sounding blunt, a circumstance where failure would have been accepted, if not completely embraced.
All of those thoughts, however, only come to those who don’t prioritise the collective over themselves. Those feelings are only ever had by people who try to do what is best for them and hope that it also translates to the greater good. Uthappa, as you might have guessed by now, is as far away from that definition as any cricketer you have known or might ever know.
That 50-run knock against Pakistan remains Uthappa’s only T20I fifty. For someone of his class and calibre, that tally, plus the fact that he played just 13 T20Is, might seem less. But when viewed in the larger context of what it was worth, it becomes amply clear it was an illustration of what he stood for throughout his career.
If his contributions are solely viewed through the statistical lens, you might even come to the conclusion that he was someone who did not quite justify the immense talent he possessed. Uthappa might admit it himself that he could have scored a lot more international runs than he ultimately did.
Robin Uthappa enjoyed many memorable moments during his career
But on the field, even when you did not notice Uthappa, he was there. There to do whatever his team asked of him. Prepared to sacrifice his personal ambitions for his side’s cause. And of course, ready to be whatever his team needed him to be.
Remember the 264 Rohit Sharma smashed against Sri Lanka, which included a monumental assault in the death overs? Try remembering who was at the other end, and kept feeding Rohit the strike so that he could carve an unparalleled place in cricketing folklore.
Go back to 2014 and the IPL. The Kolkata Knight Riders, under Gautam Gambhir’s astute captaincy, lifted the crown. It was a star-studded team, comprising Andre Russell, Jacques Kallis, Morne Morkel, Suryakumar Yadav and Umesh Yadav. Uthappa scored the most number of runs that year and won the Orange Cap. Until Ruturaj Gaikwad in IPL 2021, that was the only instance of the Orange Cap winner being a part of the title-winning side.
Speaking of 2021, almost everyone remembers Qualifier 1 as the game where Dhoni turned back the clock, and led the Chennai Super Kings to an improbable victory. Gaikwad, who scored a truckload of runs in that edition, was the Player of the Match in that game for his stunning fifty. Who set the foundation, though? You might already know the answer by now.
If you had to name one defining image of Uthappa, it will probably be him winning India the bowl-out at the 2007 ICC World T20, doffing his cap and proving those who trusted him, right. That that game also contained a brilliant half-century – an innings that got India to a total they could defend, is easily forgotten. In a nutshell, that is what his career was always about.
You could easily mistake him for anyone on the field. He did not celebrate as if the world depended on it like Virat Kohli. He did not have the flashy fielding brilliance of someone like Ravindra Jadeja. And he did not have the aura of Dhoni. Yet, he was special. He was like no other. The talent and how much of it translated into tangible returns will be long debated. But could anyone have been as present for his team as Uthappa? Most probably not.
Hence, Uthappa will forever be remembered as the ultimate team man. Because of the talent he possessed, there will always be an argument that he didn’t quite live up to his billing. That he should have scored more runs and that he should have won India more games of cricket. But on the field, and while being a brother in arms, oh, he will remain like no other.