Sanju Samson: Will he?  Won't he? 

View From My Window

by M G Radhakrishnan

5 min read
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The great cricket extravaganza hosted by India is less than two months away. Notwithstanding the unprecedented last minute glitches like rescheduling of matches and the much delayed ticket-sales schedule, it is all set to go. The fever is already on in India where cricket is the biggest cause for mass frenzy after religion. The current zeitgeist of jingoism also is likely to turn the "gentleman's game" into a proxy war when India and Pakistan meet each other on October 14 in their first encounter. And that too, when the venue is to be the Narendra Modi stadium in Ahmedabad, one can’t imagine what is in store.

The game which was once rich in colour, diversity, character, strategies and tactics has also been reduced as a monochromatic mad race for runs with the advent of the T20 madness. It's symptomatic of our times when quantity is privileged over quality. Yet, despite the changes, the game remains irresistible even for old admirers like this writer. The ICC Men’s World Cup which has emerged to be one of the most watched world sporting events (and a phenomenal money spinner) is coming to India exactly after a decade. Though India hosted it thrice before, the upcoming 13th edition of the 50-over tourney of 10 countries is the first the country is hosting all by herself. All the earlier ones -1987, 1996 and 2011- were co-hosted by India with others. Ranked favourites, India hopes to do an encore of 2011 when it hosted last and won drubbing Sri Lanka in the final. England, the hosts of the last edition (2019) lifted the cup beating New Zealand in a nail-biting final at the Lords. Australia has won the cup most times (five times) in its 44-year-history followed by India and West Indies (twice).

As an avid fan, I will be glued to television from October 5th until the final scheduled for November third week. But as a Malayali, I eagerly looked for two things more. The first was whether Kerala would get to host at least one of the total 48 matches. Though there were reports of Thiruvananthapuram being considered for a match, finally it contended with having only qualifying matches. Besides the traditional metros, big cities like Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and Pune have been granted four to five matches which I understand. But I envy Dharamsala and Lucknow for being picked among the 12 venues. Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh must have won because its stadium nestling in the Himalayas is the world’s highest cricket ground and breathtakingly picturesque. Who can doubt the political significance of Ahmedabad and Lucknow?

After my first hope got dashed I still nurse my second. Will Sanju Samson, Kerala’s only representative now in international cricket, get to the Indian squad? Sanju is the prime reason I watch the IPL for some time now and as a committed Rajasthan Royals fan. Unfortunately, my second hope too seems to be wearing thin. The Indian squad has not yet been announced. Though Rohit Sharma said that nobody is a sure choice including himself with high levels of contentions for most spots, Samson’s chances which were bright until recently went for a sixer with his sloppy show in the T20 series against West Indies. Even his die-hard supporters seem to be losing hope. Pakistan’s former leg spinner Danish Kaneria, who claims to be an avid Sanju fan, has been widely quoted saying he stands no chance as he wasted the ample number of opportunities he got in the five match-T20 series against West Indies. Though I wonder why an ordinary player like Kaneria's (his claim to fame is of being only the second Hindu to play for Pakistan), words carry such traction, Samson remains on a sticky wicket for sure.

Sanju Samson

He failed to cross 15 in the first two matches which India lost and didn’t bat in the third which it won. Like it is for India, the coming fourth and fifth matches are so crucial to Samson. R. Ashwin, though praised Samson as capable of changing the course of a game anytime, feels the 28-year-old Malayali may not get into the World Cup team as the top four slots are already fixed.

But many point out Samson’s Achilles heel is the T20 but he shines in ODIs which is the World Cup format. It was Samson’s brilliant 53 in 41 balls in the Third ODI against West Indies at the Brian Lara Stadium helped India wrap up the series. It was his second half century away from home in the white ball format and had his second highest strike rate at 124.4 after the highest (136.5) against South Africa in 2022.

Unfortunately, Samson failed to repeat the show in the T20 series that followed. In fact, his average in the T20 is an abysmal 18.82 from 19 games since he debuted in 2015. He has only one half-century (77) in his international T20 career which was made against Ireland. He failed in every position he was deputed to and against every country.

Certainly, Samson, praised widely as a unique talent, has slipped much in indices of temperament and consistency. Many observers feel he continues to play like a rookie even after eight years in international T20 cricket.

But there are many who feel that though Samson had some good opportunities, he has also received some rough handling from team management. Despite his good performance in ODIs and also IPL for the skipper of Rajasthan Royals, Samson has until now played only in 13 internationals for India since his debut in 2021. Yet he has an impressive average of 55.71 with a total of 390 runs. Often, Samson gets the cap only when an established player is rested, said former Indian player Saba Karim who called him an enigma.

Greenfield stadium at Thiruvananthapuram

Another unfair deal Samson faced is the constant shuffling of his batting position. In most matches Samson played in different slots though he has performed better when playing in top order. Often he is deputed as a finisher or a floater instead of top line. Captain Hardik Pandya coming in on the fifth slot ahead of Samson in the last T20 match against West Indies has invited much flak. Former Indian player Robin Uthappa feels team management's “lack of clarity” makes Samson unable to find his rhythm as his optimal best is not being tapped in lower slots. Pandya has also been accused of being too selfish not to let Tilak Varma score his half-century by scoring a sixer himself to clinch an easy win.

However, in Indian cricket’s killingly competitive field where talents bloom aplenty, such “ifs” and “buts” don’t stand a chance. Samson’s chances to find a place on top as a reliable batsman-wicket keeper have been bright especially since Shreyas Iyer and KL Rahul got injured and are unlikely to play the World Cup. But even as Samson found it hard to find form, many younger talents are knocking at the team’s door. Samson’s mediocre show as keeper also gave Ishan Kishan better chance to be seen as a reserve opener-cum-gloves man. Suryakumar Yadav, though inconsistent like Samson, often compensates with his mighty knocks as he did in the 3rd T20 against the Carribeans to vie for a top slot in the national team. Samson’s RR colleague Yeshaswi Yadav is making waves and Tilak Varma, the 20 year-old left-handed batting sensation from Hyderabad, is being recommended to the World Cup squad by Ashwin and former chief selector, MSK Prasad, in Iyer’s place.

Knocking at the 30s, age too is not quite on Samson’s side. He has to hit -he is capable- really big in the two remaining T20 matches against West Indies, that is, if at all he gets to bat. This may ensure his participation in the Asian Cup, co-hosted by Pakistan and Sri Lanka, starting on August 30 as a precursor for the World Cup. A good show there could mean a step away from the World Cup. Anyway, the coming few days could be the most crucial in the career of the fourth Kerala cricketer who played for India.

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