With some players, one shot is all it takes to catch the eye. With Tendulkar it was a straight drive in March 1989 at the Wankhede Stadium. It was a Ranji Trophy semi-final against Delhi and a boy was playing like he belonged in a world of men. With Ganguly it was a square drive at the Eden Gardens a year later. It was a Ranji Trophy final and he was on debut. With Sanju Samson it was a cover drive in an IPL game in Jaipur in 2013.
We didn’t know much about this young man and then suddenly, he played this shot. Everyone in the commentary box stopped what they were doing.
So have I just put a young man only recently out of under-19 cricket in the company of two greats? I don’t know if the word will one day be placed alongside his name but he had a similar effect with the first shot I saw. And since then I look forward to his presence at the crease. And almost inevitably he plays a shot that warms my heart.
I want to see more. I want to see him batting when the ball is swinging and seaming around and testing his defence. I want to see him on a turner taking on two accurate spinners. I want to see so much more. All I have seen so far is him batting in T20 cricket but I know I am seeing someone very special. So far his batting is a bit like a little fireworks display; dramatic, eye-catching and brief but that is also the nature of the game he is playing. He will block a couple and suddenly he will launch one off the front foot over mid-wicket. Most times, it will be the shot you will remember at the end of the match.
I notice with some satisfaction that he has four first class hundreds in thirteen matches but I am uncertain of what the best scales are to weigh him in. For years, we have looked at players playing their formative years in long-form cricket, growing up hearing of the legend of test cricket and having local heroes with good first-class records. But Samson is the first of a new generation that has grown up watching the IPL; who, in their impressionable years, saw India win a World T20; who are influenced by auctions and retentions. Even Virat Kohli, who called someone a youngster the other day, would have been influenced by fifty overs and four-day cricket as a young man. Samson will be the first of a generation of players who will have to scale up to test cricket rather than adjust to T20 cricket. Quinton de Kock is the first international player having to make that transition and hopefully Samson will make that move too.
I must confess to being a little disappointed watching him at the Under-19 World Cup. He should have dominated that, he should have had other teams wondering what he would do to them. A Tendulkar, who played Under-19 cricket after a first-class hundred, would have been hungry, would have hit a couple of centuries. Samson played attractive cameos there too. In one game he fooled around with the bowling, hit the ball out of the stadium, then just kept slogging, was dropped a few times and got out. It was almost as he if was bored. As a young man bred on bright cameos, will he sustain the hunger to play long innings? Yes, he has a double century for Kerala, and that is a good sign, but keep your eyes open for the long innings.
At the Rajasthan Royals he is in very good hands. At 19, to get a permanent number three position in a major tournament is a luxury. But he is also in a nice club, working with the master of understated batting in Rahul Dravid who is building a little classroom there with Ajinkya Rahane the leading pupil. Can Dravid package and deliver Samson to India? Now, if you are a cricket lover, there is something to get excited by.
But it isn’t just the Royals for they will only have Samson for a couple of months. The ability of the Kerala Cricket Association to nurture a very rare talent will be tested too. Tendulkar and Dravid grew up from the finest nurseries of Indian cricket, they were wonderfully looked after. And there must be something about Delhi if it could produce Sehwag and Kohli. But Kerala doesn’t have a track record. Can they resist the urge to spoil him? Will egos, so rampant in administration everywhere, crush the flower that blooms there?
Sanju Samson is an extraordinarily gifted young man. So far, he looks well bred. Indian cricket cannot lose him.