It's that time of the year when one name crops up every time cricket writers jot down their players to watch out for while writing Indian Premier League (IPL) listicles. Sanju Samson burst into the limelight in 2013 and impressed the cricketing world with his calmness, composure and strokeplay playing for Rajasthan Royals in the IPL, and was instantly touted as one for the future.
Since then, Samson has always been there or thereabouts in the cricketing arena, playing on and off for India A, but not reaching the heights expected of him. It may be a case of expectations being too high, but he did cause waves of excitement when we first got a glimpse of him.
He's played just one international match so far — a T20I against Zimbabwe at Harare back in 2015. Since then, he's slowly drifted away from the selectors' radar. He's had a roller-coaster ride in the domestic arena, punctuated by disciplinary and fitness issues which haven't exactly helped his case. It wasn't until the 2017-18 season, where he averaged over 50 (52.25) in first-class cricket for the first time since he crossed that mark in 2013-14 (58.88).
Samson's case is that of unfulfilled potential, but he doesn't think he's done injustice to his talent. He believes that he is going in the right direction and his time will come.
"I believe I am in a right direction and a right way," Sanju tells Firstpost as we sit down for a chat on the sidelines of Rajasthan Royals' training session at the Brabourne Stadium. "Each and every player has his own path to travel. Some players get lucky to get the chance first hand, the team combination allows it, they perform at the right time and everything happens. There is no point in getting worried that you haven't done justice to your talent.
"If you are smart enough and you see the Indian team, it's the world's best team, it's not so easy to get into the team. If the role in which you want to go is performed by the legend MS Dhoni, you can't expect to replace him. It's about getting more real. I know that I am in the right direction and I know that I have the potential to be there. It's just about the right time and right moment. And it will happen automatically."
It's been four years since he played his only international match, but he's not given up on it yet; there is still that hunger to add to that tally which drives him.
"The hunger is a lot, that's why we practice hours and hours. Without the hunger and motivation, you can't keep practicing in the hot sun throughout the day. There is a lot of hunger inside me and I am sure, if I work in the right way, I will be there," the Kerala wicket-keeper-batsman says.
A lot of this motivation he derives is from watching the players play in the revered jersey, which has also acted as a catalyst in the learning process.
"I come from a country called India. If you look at the players playing in the Indian jersey, if you even look at a match India plays, you get motivated. People like Virat Kohli scoring hundreds each and every match, MS Dhoni bhai finishing games. Kedar Jadhav did it too against Australia in Hyderabad. If you need motivation you just need to switch on the TV and watch an India game. It's more than enough. There are legends coming up in each and every generation, like Virat Kohli bhai, Ajinkya bhai, Dhoni bhai and a lot of people coming up. So you need to learn what all they are doing in the matches and need to raise your standards to be there."
External motivation from family and friends has always been there, but Samson believes that few things have more impact than self-motivation. He wants to "be the best" in every match that he plays and continue improving as a cricketer and person.
"Family is there, friends are there but more than anyone, you need to be there for yourself," the 24-year-old explains. "Mentally you need to be very strong to understand that even if you go through a bad phase or a good phase, you need to keep on motivating yourself. You are your motivator. If you think the right thoughts, take the right decisions, you are the best guy for yourself."
The 2017-18 season was perhaps the best of Samson's career — he averaged 52.25 in first-class cricket and averaged 31.50 in the IPL, his best in the history of the league. It was on the back of strong domestic performances that Rajasthan Royals bought him back for a hefty amount of Rs 8 crore in the 2018 auction. He had spent two years with Delhi Daredevils during Royals' suspension. En route the bumpy ride, Samson feels he's improved as a player.
"I can see a lot of difference in myself," Sanju says. "I am playing my fifth or sixth IPL for RR. So I have been really improving as a cricketer in all the major aspects, like starting an innings, building an innings and finishing an innings and knowing your strengths."
Returning to Royals was special. He felt almost similar to what he felt when he made his debut and 'couldn't stop smiling' for a couple of hours after he was bought in the auction. Samson missed it a lot during the two years of suspension. Just like every other youngster, the franchise has played an important role in the development of the Kerala native.
"It's all about the dressing room," Samson explains. "It's a very friendly and a chill atmosphere. Coming back, I thought after two years it will be a bit different than it was the last time, but it wasn't. The same people are here, almost everyone is there and the same vibes are going around. So it feels like home for me. Whenever I come here, I feel comfortable.
"There are a lot of players like Ajinkya Rahane, Steve Smith coming, Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes and all the big players of international cricket, they all gel nicely with the youngsters so it becomes easy for each and every youngster to learn about the game and mature as a cricketer. RR is a place where a cricketer can really improve his game. There are a lot of good human beings here. The motto of this team is to support the players and give them the first priority. And that's what we give back to the franchise."
Having the likes of Rahul Dravid, Paddy Upton and cricket director Zubin Barucha in the support system proved to be the guiding light during the tough phase of spot-fixing.
"I was very young, I was 17 or 18 so I was not matured enough to think what happened and what all didn't happen or what could have happened and what all people did wrong," Sanju says. "I never went very deep into all those things. It's not good to go in deep and point fingers that 'he did bad' or 'that person did badly'. I was very happy to have Rahul Dravid, Paddy Upton and Zubin Bharucha to guide me in my right direction."
Dravid, in particular, has had a crucial role to play in Sanju's development.
"People like Rahul 'sir' are always there for you to guide and to show that what a person has to be like, what image should a cricketer have and what all values you need to set.
"He used to give me a lot of confidence that I am good enough and used to back me, which gave me the confidence to perform."
This (2018-19) season though, he couldn't replicate last year's form, and averaged 28.58 in first-class cricket in Kerala's historic journey to the Ranji Trophy semi-finals. He averaged just 20.90 in List A matches. The likes of Rishabh Pant, KS Bharat, Ishan Kishan have climbed up the pecking order. Having drifted away from the selectors' radar, this IPL season becomes all the more crucial for Samson. He has transformed from the sprightly youngster to a matured senior who will form the cornerstone of the batting line-up. However, the Kerala boy is unperturbed.
"Every tournament is crucial for me," he says. "If I play the Ranji trophy, it's crucial. If I play Vijay Hazare, Mushtaq Ali or IPL, each and every tournament is crucial. And now-a-days, you have opportunities all through the year. So wherever you perform in any tournament, if you perform at an outstanding level, you get noticed. It's not worrying about this is the last tournament or this is the most crucial tournament. After IPL also, each and every tournament is very well noticed now-a-days and the opportunity is always there to express yourself."
Samson has had average and good seasons, but the need of the hour is a great season to get back into the reckoning. He, however, says that going into the IPL, it's not going to be about Samson, it's all about Rajasthan Royals.
"I play this tournament not for my goals actually, the team comes first," he explains. "If I have an ordinary season but if my team wins the IPL, I am happy about it. If I have an extraordinary season and if my team wins the IPL then it's a dream. I am worried about the team right now instead of performing here and going back to the next level. The focus should be winning as many matches as possible for Rajasthan Royals."
So, there is no need to press the accelerator then?
"I think I have been pressing the right accelerator from last many seasons, so I don't have to press it any harder. It's only about pressing in the right way and trusting it. It's only trying to do the same things, I don't have to do something extra."
The approach hasn't changed, neither has the mindset. There are no special preparations going into the IPL.
"I know what my strengths are. I just keep working on them and keep getting better at them. I believe I am on a good path and just want to make that path stronger."
It is this confidence that might actually get him back into reckoning again.