Is Sanju Samson 2.0 simply a happier version of his former self?
Sanju Samson is a calmer man now. He knows his time will come and that getting into arguably the world’s best limited-overs cricket team is not an easy task.
“He is an absolute task master,” says Ebin Rose, a football coach at a local football club. His sentences were short. The road from Thennurkonam, the nearest bus stop, to the Vizhinjam beach was a steep climb.
You could not see the sea but you somehow knew it was nearby. There was a tinge of salt in the air. The odour of dried fish compounded that feeling.
The road was covered with tiny sand particles while the only vegetation in sight were long coconut palms swaying to the winds.
“You would feel sorry for the kid. It was just train, train, train… His father was his coach, mentor and his biggest influence,” says Ebin.
The ‘kid’ he was talking about was Indian cricketer Sanju Samson. Son of a retired footballer from Thiruvananthapuram, Samson.
I was not in Vizhinjam to talk about cricket or Sanju. I had heard multiple stories of how the southern coasts of Kerala was bustling with quality footballers. Ebin Rose had founded a football club that was helping these footballers reach their full potential. But as I found out, no story of football in the region was complete without a word on Sanju’s father.
In the genes
“People here have a lot of respect for Mr. Samson,” says Antony, another former footballer from the region. “Despite the coastal areas being blessed with footballing talent, he is the first one who made it big. So people look up to him,” he adds.
Therefore it was surprising to many to see Samson encourage his son to take up cricket – a sport, despite popular narratives telling otherwise, continues to be considered ‘elitist’ in the coasts of Vizhinjam. But senior Samson was clear how he wanted his son to grow up.
“His son became an obsession. We’ve heard multiple stories of how he’d push his kid to the extremes to train him into a top athlete,” says the former footballer. “It is not surprising to see Sanju in the Indian team. The kid has worked really hard to be there.”
As a Malayali, I had always kept a tab on the narratives around Sanju’s abilities and the hype around him. In 2013, at the age of 18, he was already being touted as the potential replacement for Mahendra Singh Dhoni. His performances for the Indian Premier League (IPL) franchise Rajasthan Royals did fetch him a place in the Indian national team in 2015 but then five years later, he still remains at the cusp, unable to cross that threshold value that would make him a team India regular.
One might argue it’s Dhoni’s unexpected longevity that stopped Sanju. Rishab Pant’s emergence as the heir to Dhoni’s throne due to his big-hitting abilities has also held back Sanju. In the recent years, there has been a consolidated effort from Kerala cricketer’s camp to establish the star as a batsman who can keep than the other way around.
Dinesh Karthik’s late foray into the Indian national team came largely due to his ability to finish off matches with the bat than his prowess behind the stumps despite being consistently efficient as keeper for Tamil Nadu and in IPL. KL Rahul, Pant, Prithvi Shaw and Wriddhiman Saha are all vying for the spot in the team as the batting keeper so the change in approach by Sanju was justified.
To many in the cricketing world, he represented the biggest challenge for a coach. You could see how talented a batsman he was. He had the grace of a Rohit Sharma and the power of a Virat Kohli. But nobody knew how to bring harness this raw talent in Sanju and bring it out on a consistent basis.
“There is Virat Kohli. And then there are players like Sanju and Shubman (Gill) who can be Kohlis but are yet to overcome that final roadblock. Judging by my experience observing young players, I can guarantee that roadblock is most often in the head. In terms of ability, they are already there among the world’s best,” says a sports journalist who has been following Indian cricket for the recent years.
Back in Kerala, the worry was whether Sanju will be another story of an immensely talented cricket growing impatient. The scars of S Sreesanth’s stunted career have still not faded. Another heartbreak would have been too much to handle.
2016 was the first evidence that all was not well in Sanju’s head. He allegedly broke a bat after a disappointing match against Goa in the Ranji Trophy and disappeared from the venue without informing the Kerala Cricket Association (KCA) which caused a huge uproar.
Interestingly, the allegations that were put forward by the KCA were refuted by his father. Samson, evidently, still had a big say in the cricketer’s life despite Sanju’s rise as one of India’s most promising career. The 17-18 period, despite some decent performances with the bat, were marred with a few controversies with the player being accused of rebelling against then-Kerala captain Sachin Baby.
A calmer Sanju
“You got this feeling he was too tight and tensed at the crease,” says a Kerala-based journalist who has watched a lot of Sanju’s domestic cricket. “He used to be confused whether to play his natural attacking game or try to grind it out, and that often resulted in him getting out.”
Nobody knows what affected the batsman so much. Was it the weight of expectations? Was it just anger? Was it the fame that had to come to him at such a young age? Was it a mix of it all?
Nobody will know what plagued the mind of the young star. Nor will they know how he overcame them. But the boy from the coastal regions of Thiruvananthapuram was at the heart of all things positive for Kerala as they reached the semifinal of the Ranji Trophy for the first time in the 2018-19 campaign. He cut an assured figure, a happier avatar of his previous self, more aware and assured of his abilities. On a personal front too he had success with the cricketer marrying his long-time lover in December 2018.
The expectations from the batsman remains very high and his chances will continue to be thin with the overdose of talent at India’s disposal.
But Sanju, according to people who have watched him, is on the rise.
“He has started backing his instincts a lot more. The results are still a mixed bag but the approach seems to have freed him up a lot. He is no longer that tight at the crease. Enjoys a few smiles and words with the opposition. Even when he gets out playing a rash shot, he doesn’t appear too hard on himself,” says the Kerala-based cricket journalist.
The ‘few smiles’ stands out. A pleasant contrast to the boy who broke the bat after the Ranji match against Goa.
“If you prefer intense cricketers, at times, his casual detachment may not impress you. But Sanju has found a way that gives him clarity. He has changed after the troubles he had to go through,” adds the journalist.
Sanju will be part of India’s squad in the T20I series in New Zealand that begins on Friday (January 24th). With KL Rahul impressing as a keeper and New Zealand’s pitch conditions likely to aid fast bowlers, it still remains unclear if Captain Virat Kohli and Coach Ravi Shastri will give Sanju a slot in the main XI. A 21-ball 39 in India A’s match against the Kiwis would not have hurt his chances however. But most importantly, Sanju is a calmer man now. He knows his time will come and that getting into arguably the world’s best limited-overs cricket team is not an easy task.
The sun was setting as Ebin Rose and I walked towards the beach. His football team had a practice match scheduled at the beach - a place where some of Kerala's best footballers had polished their skills. A place, perhaps if Sanju goes on to achieve consistent success in international cricket, that will become a hot-bed for cricket too.
The tough climb was over and we were descending towards the beach. You could sense the sea was really close even though you could not see it. It was horizons that gave it away.. You somehow instinctively knew that beyond the palms trees, after the small turn, next to the church, was the sea.
An untamed ocean of potential.