When a 12-year-old Sanju Samson landed at the Sports Authority of India coaching centre in Trivandrum, coach Biju George just thought of him as another aspiring cricketer.
The SAI centre offers free training to everyone, so no one is turned away and plenty turn up. All aspirants have to bring their own cricket balls and their cricket kit but other than that – the nets, the training, the coaching is all free. So that’s how Sanju took his first tentative steps towards a professional cricket career.
And it didn’t take him long to impress Biju. He was quickly made part of a team that took part in a u-13 tournament. And in five matches, his scores – three centuries, one double century and an 86 – left little doubt of his ability.
“He is a keeper but he really does love batting. In the last match, where he scored 86, he was the captain and didn’t even keep,” Biju told Firstpost over the phone from Trivandrum. “I was very angry with him. But then at that age, he wanted to do everything. Before scoring that 86, he had also bowled 20 bowlers. A keeper who bowls... a bit like Dhoni no?”
“In the age of television and slow motion replays everybody has their own ideas about technique. Sanju, luckily, seemed to have all the right ideas.”
Jokes aside, Biju believes that the 18-year-old Sanju, who has become a star for the Rajasthan Royals in IPL 6, had an inborn talent for the sport.
“Take yesterday for example, the 13th and 14th overs were quiet ones. Just 3 runs were scored in both of them but he stayed pretty calm because he trusted himself and his team-mates. Part of that composure is natural (kudrati hai). He’s always been a calm guy,” said Biju about Samson's 33-ball 47 against Kings XI Punjab. “The other part is having the guys like Rahul Dravid and Paddy Upton as part of the team, giving advice at every step. You can’t imagine how much that means to a young player. They have a clarity of thought and that helps all youngsters.”
Sanju isn’t the only player in the IPL to come out of the SAI coaching centre. Sachin Baby, who also plays for the Rajasthan Royals, trained there as well. As did Padmanabhan Prasanth, who is with Sunrisers Hyderabad and Raiphi Gomez, who is with Pune Warriors India.
So it’s obvious that the centre is doing something right – just as it’s obvious that Rajasthan have got their handling of their team just right.
“I was speaking to Sanju and he couldn’t stop raving about how the team is like one big happy family. He hasn’t missed home,” said Biju. “In fact, he wishes that next year after the auction, he lands up at the same team with the same players.”
Given how successful Sanju has been this season, it comes as no surprise that he has already been inundated with calls from agents and sponsors. But for the moment, he has his mind set on cricket. And that is another area where having a mentor like Dravid helps.
The former India skipper may not know a lot about the partying scene but he sure knows a thing or two about how to get into the Indian team and stay there. That alone is Sanju’s focus for now.
The Kerala Cricket Association has helped Sanju and many other young cricketers from the State by sending them on tours abroad. Even as a under-13 cricketer, Sanju went on a tour of Australia for 45 days. In 2011, he went for a long tour to South Africa and they won all their matches there.
“Paul Adams (the former South Africa spinner) was one of the coaches of the SA side and he was stunned at the quality of all our youngsters. Such experiences are invaluable for youngsters. The exposure shall hold him in good stead.”
At one level, everyone is praising Sanju for the manner in which he has gone about his cricket. But then we’ve seen almost all the other youngsters including Unmukt Chand not have a good time this year. We’ve also seen other cricketers make their mark in previous years like Saurabh Tiwary and disappear. So is Sanju a one-off?
“If you are good enough, you are old enough. It’s easy to get side-tracked and the money is easy. But for the moment, Sanju wants to get into the Indian team. That’s all he has his sights set on. Being dropped from the U-19 World Cup squad hit him hard and he just wants to get back now.”
And Sanju will have that chance sooner than he can imagine. Come June-end, the Indian U-19 squad will be going on tour to South Africa. Biju hopes that Sanju will be skipper (Unmukt is over the age bar now) and that’s when he will be able to show that he’s more than just an IPL star.