Sportspersons and players hog news headlines for two reasons – either on account of outstanding performances in their respective disciplines or due to any controversy generated by them, which can be by way of omission or commission of any action or through written or spoken word. But Indian cricket is witnessing a surprising development where a player finds himself in the vortex of articles and discussions, despite being not part of the playing eleven of the national side and without committing any indiscretions whatsoever.
The cricketer involved is Sanju Samson, the wicketkeeper-batsman from Kerala, who is the subject matter of many debates in cricketing circles across the country, for not being given adequate opportunities to prove his potential and cement a permanent place in the national squad during the recently concluded tour of New Zealand.
Sanju started playing cricket in Delhi, where his father was employed, but moved back to his home state by the time he reached the age of taking part in representative matches.
He made waves with his penchant for making tall scores at a young age and soon gained selection to the state junior team. His performance attracted the attention of the national junior selectors and he was included in the Indian team that took part in the Asia Under-19 Elite Cup championship held in Malaysia in 2012. Sanju played in all the matches but could not come good with the bat, with the result that he did not find favour with the selectors when the Indian squad for the International Cricket Council (ICC) Under-19 World Cup was chosen the next year.
However, Sanju quickly put this disappointment behind him and made his debut in first-class cricket in November, 2011. Another fortunate break came his way when he was contracted in 2013 by Rajasthan Royals to play for them in the Indian Premier League (IPL).
Sanju used the twin platforms of first-class and IPL to showcase his talent before the followers of the game in the country. Two double centuries in successive seasons in Ranji Trophy (2013-14 and 2014-15) ensured his elevation to the South Zone side. He came on the radar of the national junior selectors again and was appointed as the vice-captain of the Indian team for the 2014 ICC Under-19 World Cup, where he came up with a string of good scores.
This series of outstanding performances caught the attention of the senior selection committee of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and Sanju got a break when he was included in the national side that toured Zimbabwe in 2015 to play three One-Day Internationals (ODIs) and two T20 Internationals. Though he was included in the squads for both ODIs and T20 Internationals, he got his break only in the last T20 International.
On his debut, Sanju walked in to bat with the scoreboard reading 69/5 in nine overs. It had improved to 117 when he became the seventh batsman to be dismissed in the 18th over. Statistics show that he did not do badly scoring 19 runs off 24 balls in a low-scoring game that the hosts won by 10 runs. But he found himself in the wilderness after this game and had to wait till December, 2019, before he could turn out again for the country.
Getting shunted back to the hard grind of domestic cricket after a fleeting exposure to the high table of international matches can be a shattering experience. History is replete with stories of many cricketers who stumbled and lost their way once they found themselves at the ground zero of playing first-class matches. But Sanju took this in his stride and showed his class by piling tons of runs in the domestic first-class circuit and IPL.
After a lean patch with the bat in the 2015-16 season, he struck form during the next year to score 627 runs from seven matches, which helped pilot Kerala to the quarterfinals of the Ranji Trophy. He then went on to blaze a double hundred (212) off 128 balls in the Vijay Hazare Trophy List A game against Goa in October, 2019, which helped him earn a recall to the national squad.
Sanju also utilised the opportunities that came his way in IPL to stay in the national limelight. In only his second match in IPL, in 2013, he hit 63 off 41 balls to become the youngest player to hit a half-century in the championship. Except for the two years of 2016 and 2017 when Rajasthan Royals was suspended from IPL, Sanju had remained steadfast in his loyalty to this franchisee since he first signed for them in 2013. He was elevated to the captaincy in 2021 and he led them to the final of the last IPL. He stood at ninth position in the list of top batsmen in the 2022 IPL with a tally of 458 runs and his strike rate of 146.29 placed him in sixth place among those players who scored more than 400 runs.
It was on the strength of consistent performances in first-class cricket and IPL that Sanju forced his return to the national T20 squad in October, 2019. But he had to spend too many days warming the benches and could not score heavily in the limited opportunities that he got. The result was that he found himself out in the cold within a year. He earned a call to the national side for the ODI and T20II series against Sri Lanka in June, 2021,and equipped himself well on his debut in ODIs with a polished innings of 46 off 46 balls. But even after this, the tag of not being consistent enough in international cricket dogged him and he could not earn a permanent place in the squad – both in the ODIs and T20Is.
In international cricket, however, fortune started smiling on Sanju only in the second half of the current year. A maiden half-century in T20 Internationals (against Ireland) was followed by one in the ODIs (against the West Indies). He won his first man-of-the-match award in India colours during the series against Zimbabwe that followed. He started the ODI series against South Africa in October with an unbeaten 86 off 63 balls in the first game and was at the crease in the remaining two matches when victory was achieved.
Thus, Sanju was an automatic choice for the tour of New Zealand that followed the ICC T20 World Cup. However, he was benched during the three-match T20 series, at the end of which skipper Hardik Pandya offered the explanation that he did not believe in chopping and changing the side and that everyone would get a chance in the long run. The ostensible logic was that team management did not want to drop those who were given a chance to play without giving them a good number of matches. Sanju played in the first ODI scoring 36 off 38 balls and was involved in a 94-run partnership in 12.5 overs with Shreyas Iyer that rescued the team from a difficult position of 160/4. However, Sanju was dropped for the next two games on the ground that team management wanted to play Deepak Hooda, who could also step in as an additional bowler should the need arise.
During a discussion on this topic, Simon Doull, the cricketer-turned-commentator from New Zealand pointed out to Harsha Bhogle that Indian team management was persisting with Rishabh Pant who has played 30 ODIs and averages around 35, while Sanju had an average of close to 60 from just 11 matches. Bhogle tried to justify Pant’s inclusion saying that India is still trying to find a slot for this talented batsman who has five centuries to his credit in Test cricket. Pant, on his part, claimed in an interview with Bhogle that his record in white-ball cricket was not bad. A couple of newspapers have come up with articles alleging a plot hatched to remove Pant from the national side to bring in Sanju.
The decision of the team management to drop Sanju after the first ODI drew criticism as the principle of giving all players a fair number of chances was not applied in his case. During the T20I series, he was denied a chance to avoid “chopping and changing”, while this logic was turned on its head to drop him after a game in the ODI series, after just one match. Observers of the game found this approach appalling and pointed out that it was high time Sanju was given a long run at the international level. The constant fear of being dropped after one or two games, irrespective of performance would not have done his confidence any good. But Sanju has soldiered on, trying to make the most of the limited chances that he has been given to date.
The injustice part apart, there is an increasing school of thought amongst knowledgeable observers of the game that an immediate makeover of the strategies is required if India are to stand a decent chance in the ICC World Cup at home next year.
Sanju is one of the few batsmen around who have changed their style of batsmanship successfully to meet the demands of white-ball cricket. He has the potential to evolve into a big impact player on the same lines as Suryakumar Yadav if he is given the chance to blossom. The callousness and apathy with which national selectors and team management have treated the career of this stylish, fearless and hard-working batsman have created the apprehension that factors other than merit may stand in the way of his further rise in world cricket.
The banners that appeared in the football stadia in Qatar supporting Sanju are not the product of parochial or regional thought; they are the expression of angst that followers of the game are feeling towards the unfair treatment meted out to this talented cricketer.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)