Before the Rajasthan Royals' opening match in Jaipur last week, former Australian captain-turned-commentator Michael Clarke was asked by his close friend and the Royals mentor Shane Warne to watch out for Sanju Samson.
Warne and Clarke might have only seen Samson in close proximity for the first time, but the 23-year-old Kerala wicketkeeper-batsmen, the son of an army officer who thrills the audience in the months of April-May with his willow, is into his sixth season of the Indian Primer League (IPL).
Each year there is one innings that features in the top five innings' list of that year's IPL. Each year there is one shot that leaves the commentators and the spectators spellbound. At the end of each IPL, the question on everyone’s lips is 'When will Sanju Samson be a permanent part of the national team?'
On Sunday afternoon, Samson turned the questions into a statement. With the national skipper leading the opposition, Samson tore apart the Royal Bangalore Challengers bowling unit apart with an unbeaten knock of 92 runs from 45 balls to lead his team to a convincing win.
Samson’s innings on Sunday was a further reverberation of Warne’s words to Clarke. With each stroke he dazzled, but the aspect that perhaps stood out the most was his maturity and game-sense.
Samson had a good beginning in the IPL with the scores of 49 and 37 in the opening two matches, but when asked about his knock of 92 in the innings break, he was quick to state, "I had been playing well but I had not done by job by batting deep into the innings." It was a sign of his maturity and understanding his role.
In the last couple of years at the Delhi Daredevils, Samson had been used as a floater in the batting line-up. He had been given the task of opening, resurrecting and finishing. It is a game plan that former Daredevils coach Rahul Dravid implemented to ensure each player learns to handle multiple situations. It might have been frustrating for Samson to constantly shift up and down the batting order, but one can see how different roles have helped him play in diverse situations in the current season of the IPL.
This season, he has strode to the crease in the opening over as an aggressor. He had to restrain himself against the Sunrisers as the middle order fell away quickly. Then on Sunday, he held almost played a secondary role to a Stokes and Butler through the middle overs, before shifting into fifth gear when his team needed him the most.
At the end of the 16th over, Samson had made 42 from 30 balls. In the next 15 balls he smashed 50. Until the 16th over, 75 percent of his boundaries had been scored via the pull shot or a bottom-hand flick through the on-side. He then exploded in the final overs to repeatedly send the ball over the straight boundaries.
While it was the crisp lofted shots over cover and mid-off that remained the highlights of Samson’s knock, the shot that optimised Sanju’s immense talent came in the 19th over off the bowling of Chris Woakes. The ball was full and would have landed right on the crease — a perfect yorker — but Samson simply eased the tension in his arms and opened his wrists slightly as his willow made contact with the ball just after it had hit the turf. The timing was precise and the ball sped past the third-man for a boundary.
The mechanics of his batting are sound, and as Sunil Gavaskar stated before the match, out of the next emerging wealth of talent in Rishab Pant and Ishan Kishan, the boy from Kerala had the best technique by a mile.
Samson’s supreme knocks again raised the questions as to why he has not been able to find a place in the national team. Some in Kerala believe he has been treated unfairly by his state association, while some put it down to attitude.
In the words of national selector MSK Prasad, the deal is simple — he expects Samson to pile on the runs in the domestic cricket, in matches that have no television cameras, no audience and are played on pitches that are often nowhere close to being as benign as IPL pitches.
But the signs have been good for Samson. He had a productive Ranji Trophy season where he averaged close to 50. Two years ago, on India A’s tour to Australia, on a difficult pitch, he showed great application by scoring 30 off 102 balls, before the ball ricocheted off his thigh pads on to the stumps.
There are certainly signs that Samson is maturing. His dynamic innings in Bangalore was a sign of his class and power. For a long time he has been touted as the next ‘big’ thing in Indian cricket, only to fall short of expectations. The way he has started this IPL and with the Orange Cap on his head, perhaps his time has come.
Shane Warne has an uncanny knack of elevating careers and instilling confidence in youngsters. This season, he has Samson under his wings and it might just be the mentor Samson requires to take the next step.