Nine years have passed since the Indian Premier League (IPL) first laid eyes on Sanju Samson, a skinny teenager with dazzling strokeplay.
Numbers belied his age and precocious talent, but Team India was quick to select him as a backup wicketkeeper to MS Dhoni for the limited-overs tour to England in 2014. The 20-year-old from Kerala was handed a T20I cap in 2015 Zimbabwe. Samson had his shot that day in Harare. India needed 29 off 15 balls to win with four wickets remaining — Samson and the bowlers. Samson, however, lofted the ball straight to the long-on fielder. India fell short by 10 runs, and Samson did not play for India for the next five years.
Cut to 2022, Samson continues to draw the oohs and aahs, as well as the groans. His critics point to his shot selection and inconsistencies with the bat. The 27-year-old still triggers the perception of all talent and minimal show, much like the six years the present Indian captain Rohit Sharma suffered in his younger days.
Perhaps, Samson has been rigid with his methods for too long. Consequentially, his familiar drawbacks are masking a remarkable transition he has managed in recent years.
The consistency talk
Before the flash and bang of IPL, there was the grind through the Covid-19 years. This is a grind put in by all cricketers, especially those a step away from national selection, in silence.
Samson turned to former Kerala teammate and mentor Raiphi Gomez and technical coach G Jayakumar. The three of them worked hard during the lockdown in 2020. A former IPL player, Raiphi believes those efforts helped Samson temper his game.
“Samson’s performances have reflected a difference, and it has come on the back of a lot of hard work he put in during the 2020 lockdown. It is difficult for cricketers to get back to their basics when they are playing constantly. Sanju made the most of the period we were confined to our homes in Trivandrum. For several months, he worked on his fitness and also concentrated on improving his balance while batting. We also worked on his contact points to get the best out of his lofted shots,” says Raiphi.
Since 2020, Samson has dominated the run-charts at the no. 3 position in T20 cricket. He is the top run-scorer at the slot with 1251 runs from 38 innings at a strike rate (147.87). His 10 fifty-plus scores at no. 3 is also the joint-best alongside England’s Dawid Malan across the past three seasons.
The Rajasthan Royals skipper began his IPL 2022 season on a positive note – a quickfire 27-ball 55 against Sunrisers Hyderabad got RR off to a winning start. Samson backed it up with a cameo against Mumbai Indians before facing his first blip of the season, against Royal Challengers Bangalore. He hit his nemesis Wanindu Hasaranga for a six down the ground, and two balls later chipped a googly straight back to the bowler to fall for eight. In the return fixture, Samson got off to another belligerent start with three sixes before being castled by Hasaranga while attempting a reverse-sweep to a full-length delivery.
Former India coach Ravi Shastri echoes what many feel about Samson. “If he can be selective and choose shots correctly depending on the surface and what the conditions offer, I feel he will be a lot more consistent. He has been around for a long time. You cannot make that same mistake after 10 years and get out at 20-25,” Shastri told ESPNcricinfo after Samson’s dismissal in the first game against RCB this year.
While Samson’s numbers are better than earlier, the ‘consistency’ narrative is never far away.
Jayakumar, who has also worked with Murali Vijay, Dinesh Karthik, and Ravichandran Ashwin, feels the criticism over Samson’s shot selection is uncalled for. “He can get better. We all can improve every day. Statistics tell us that Sanju is not an inconsistent player. We can talk about shot selection when any batter gets out. We can talk about all the probables quite easily. If Sanju had pulled off the reverse-sweep against Hasaranga the other day, people would have praised the shot. This is a game with a lot of variables. Even Sachin Tendulkar, for that matter, had a success rate under 35 per cent or so. If you study deeply, even the best in the world have had struggles with the same,” says Jayakumar.
Perceptions are difficult to alter. Jayakumar and Raiphi accept this, but insist critics must make a refined evaluation of Samson’s performances.
Jayakumar also points to the perils of paying undue attention to outside noise without understanding the team’s perspective. “We are all speaking from the outside. We do not know what the team strategy is. Rajasthan has been performing well and maybe Samson’s role has been to play aggressively, we do not know. As a coach, I would have certain ideas, and maybe a quickfire knock is what I am looking for. That may not be the expectation on the outside,” he adds.
Samson is also the second leading-run scorer against spinners in the period after Shikhar Dhawan.
Samson and the rest
While his U-19 mate Shreyas Iyer and juniors Rishabh Pant and Ishan Kishan have had their share of secondary positions in the Indian limited-overs batting order, Samson received 11 scattered chances to prove his mettle in the T20I side. Poor outings in each of them did not help Samson’s case. Incidentally, he has batted at five positions in these 11 innings.
Samson had six chances at number four – three of those during India’s tour to Australia in 2020, where the team backed him to be the aggressor. Samson came back from the Australia tour with scores of 23, 15 and 10, and again went out of national reckoning.
Samson’s records in the IPL in the same period place him among the best match-winners in the league. Among all non-openers in the IPL, Samson has scored the most runs in winning causes since 2020, with 622 of his 1157 runs (53.5 per cent) helping the Royals in 17 victories. Samson’s performances in the period have only been challenged by Suryakumar Yadav, who has 1187 runs in 36 innings, with 618 runs on winning occasions.
Jayakumar feels Samson’s role in the middle-overs may not always seduce the spotlight as easily as a finisher’s cameo or a hefty contribution from a T20 opener. “He has been a team man, contributing towards the common goal. As a coach, that’s something one would give more importance to. We want the team to win.”
If only Samson could block all the noise and listen to Rohit Sharma! Soon after Rohit took charge as India’s full-time skipper across formats, he spoke about India’s goal of winning the T20 World Cup this year. Drawn into a question on Samson, Rohit said, “Some of the shots you might have seen in the IPL, the pick-up pull, the cut shots, standing and delivering over the bowler’s head. Those kind of shots are not easy to play.
“I believe when you go to Australia [where the next T20 World Cup is], you need that kind of shot-making ability. Samson definitely has it in him. I just wish him the best and hope that he utilises his potential to the maximum.”
Rohit’s assessment came before India’s T20 series against Sri Lanka, where Samson had two brief flourishes with the bat.
At this point, Samson seemingly needs a blockbuster IPL performance to nudge his way to the selectors’ high table. Rajasthan Royals are in a strong position under his leadership this year, which also helps his cause.
If talking helps, Samson would believe he has the perfect ear in long-time mentor Rahul Dravid, who took over as India’s coach in November 2021.
The numbers back Samson, over to him to back himself.