Among the cricketers to attend Sanju Samson’s wedding reception at a Thiruvananthapuram suburb was Rahul Dravid. A youtube clip of the event captures Sanju’s beaming face on seeing his captain and coach. For once, the wedding invite template “we request the pleasure of your company” didn’t seem like a cliche.
Dravid, in understated wedding formals, stood with his folded hand next to the couple. Sanju, like a deeply obliged student overwhelmed to see his favourite teacher on Day D, looks around to see if he can find someone to take extra care of the special guest. He draws the attention of his family and friends. The father climbs the stage. Dravid is shaking heads, embarrassed by the attention. He pats Sanju, shakes his hand and leaves the spotlight.
Sanju and Dravid go back a long way. Back in 2013, Sanju had been released by KKR after he had warmed the dug-out bench for the entire 2012 season. Just 18, the wicket-keeper batter was getting restless. On a hunch, he went for the Rajasthan Royals’ trials. The Jaipur franchise skipper Dravid would watch him bat there and was impressed by his instinctive batting approach.
Years later, Sanju would recall the day that changed his life and also got a taste of the famous Dravid humility. “Will you play for my team?” the genial former India skipper would ask the teenager. It was the start of a dream, and also an association that continues till date. Sanju, 27, now the Rajasthan Royals skipper, says he can call Dravid whenever he wants. That’s the rapport they share.
A rare cricketing talent to emerge from sport-crazy Kerala and the inspiration of multiple fan forums, Sanju, if social media is to be believed, was the people’s choice to be India’s wicket-keeper at the T20 World Cup. But this time around Dravid didn’t ask him to play for his team.
In the race to be on the flight to Australia, the wicket-keeper and a T20 batter with more than 100 IPL games behind him, lost out to Rishabh Pant, Dinesh Karthik and even Deepak Hooda. And while the World Cup squad was still in the skies, Sanju was playing a magical knock on a difficult track against South Africa’s world class bowling attack. He almost took India Seconds home in a game that at one point seemed lost. On landing, when the Team India decision makers would have checked scores, chances are that they would have second thoughts about the choices they had made.
Sanju’s omission has been a decision that excites the trolls and pundits. It isn’t that he was miles ahead of his competition on pure skills and numbers. But in the jigsaw that the team management has taken over a year to put together, Sanju is a better fit than at least two pieces – Pant and Hooda.
In a top-heavy team, with seniors occupying the first three spots, and world’s best T20 batter Suryakumar Yadav making No.4 his own for good, the only realistic vacancy in the playing XI is down the order. Among those in contention, and that include Hooda and Pant, Sanju is easily the better No.5.
Pant and Hooda are better suited to bat as openers and No.3 respectively but in a line-up that has Rohit, KL Rahul and Virat Kohli, they can only be injury replacements. Pant takes time to get into the zone when he can hit sixes with a single hand and even while sprawled on the ground. No.5 doesn’t give you that luxury. Hooda’s success in IPL too is mostly when he bats at No.3. With Kohli around, it’s unlikely Hooda would get the position that suits him best. He has dropped down the line-up but still the more experienced Sanju is a better option. There are more factors that favour him.
The brand of T20 that Rohit Sharma’s team has been aspiring to master for the past one year comes naturally to Sanju. The see-ball-hit-ball batter doesn’t need time to settle, balls to get his eye in or few runs to get the blood speeding. He is the natural born self-starting T20 specialist.
Sanju’s batting technique is made-to-order for a No.5. Holding the bat high on the handle, he keeps his shoulder extremely loose. This helps him to swing the bat like a giant pendulum — any half decent connection results in boundaries. His weakness is farming the strike, he isn’t known to steal singles and this makes him a ‘dot’ or ‘six’ kind of a batter. It’s a flaw that becomes his strength at the business end of T20 games when the batter throws the entire modular kitchen at the ball.
Contrastingly different from Dravid when it comes to batting, Sanju is similar to his mentor when it comes to temperament. Very early in his career, when in the company of his loud and bling-loving peers , he would stand out as an old-school. He was mature, he brought a sense of calm when batting and also while keeping.
On the Super Over podcast during the pandemic, Sanju laughed at how his non-pulsed mannerism made people see a Dhoni in him. “I had a basic maturity from a young age. I know people talk but I need to be realistic about where I stand. When someone said, ‘You are the next Dhoni’, I would say ‘Are you serious, what you are saying, you can’t say that’.”
On the same podcast, Sanju’s teammate at his former franchise Delhi Daredevils JP Duminy, recalls an evening they spent in his room. “You wanted to understand how faith plays a part in our career. It was a great talk. That day I discovered that you do have matured head on shoulders. You were quietly driven, you had a calmness. There was no arrogance and there was humility. There was quiet confidence,” he said.
And then he said something that almost embarrassed Sanju. “There was a lot of Virender Sehwag in the way you play,” said the man who post-retirement became a born-again Christain.
Either Dravid didn’t see those qualities in him or he wasn’t in a position to push his case. It could even be “bias of being too close”, he was aware of the weak points others didn’t know that they existed. Still how could anyone not be excited about a lower order that has Sanju, Hardik Pandya, DK at No. 5, 6, 7?
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National Sports Editor
The Indian Express