There is a story about Sanju Samson that provides an insight into his mindset. Dale Steyn was the gun bowler for Royal Challengers Bangalore and Samson, playing for Rajasthan Royals at No.3, would need some advice on facing one of the best in the world, at least what head coach Paddy Upton presumed.
But Samson had it all figured out.
Steyn pitches one up and swings it. Samson’s game plan was: hit him back over his head. If he pitched it short next ball, pull the South African quick. Samson didn’t make too many runs in that particular innings from the 2014 edition of the Indian Premier League, however, he did smash Steyn back over his head for a six.
The absence of fear of failure is what made Samson special, Upton writes in his book Barefoot Coach.
Unknown to Upton is the goading the youngster got from his father for not taking on Steyn in the previous game between the two sides — he had played and missed five balls in an over. “After the match, my father called me. Normally, he gets angry. But today he was really angry. He told me ‘Dale Steyn was staring at you, why don’t you hit him?’ I told him, how can I hit Dale Steyn? He is one of the best bowlers in the world. But my father said ‘you have to hit him, how can he stare at you and walk away’. I definitely got pumped up. Father keh rahe hai ki world ke best bowler ko baja de (Father was saying smash the best bowler in the world)! I was 18 or 19 at that time,” Samson says.
The youngster carries his aggression lightly — he never looks back at the bowler regardless of whether he is beaten or has hit a boundary, and does not get into a confrontation. The attacking mindset he carries to the wicket was ingrained from the age of 13, when his coach Biju George asked him to whack balls out of the medical college ground.
“He is a different type of coach. He says you must go for it, his strategy was ‘anyway you will get out, so you must just go for it’. It came out naturally and I kept on developing it,” Samson says.
His attacking game has earned praise from former players, with Gautam Gambhir going as far as saying he was good enough to play at No.4 for India at the World Cup, after watching him hit an unbeaten 102 in 55 balls against Sunrisers Hyderabad earlier this year. Yet, as the season progressed, his form tailed off and Samson finished with 342 runs at a strike rate of 148.69.
When the India ‘A’ squad was announced for the five one-dayers in the West Indies, Samson didn’t figure in the initial list. When a spot opened after Rishabh Pant got a late call-up for the World Cup, it went to Ishan Kishan. In a post-MS Dhoni scenario, the next generation of wicketkeepers — Test-capped Pant (21), Kishan (20) and Samson (24) — will fancy their chances across formats. The experienced Wriddhiman Saha, on the sidelines following a shoulder surgery, will also remain a strong contender in a crowded battle.
Samson reconciled to the fact that his 50-over form didn’t merit a place in the India ‘A’ squad. When T20 squads were going to be announced, he admitted to being hopeful. His lone match in India colours was four years ago, a T20 International in Zimbabwe.
Samson says it has been frustrating to watch some of his peers play for India. After a string of good knocks, people talk him up, but the volume of runs has not been large enough for him to move ahead in the queue.
Last season (2017-18), he made 627 runs in the Ranji Trophy with two centuries and two fifties. He captained the Board’s President’s XI and made a hundred against Sri Lanka. “Back then, people were saying you will play for India. If you start thinking about an India call-up, it can be tough. I have heard people like Brian Lara, Sachin sir and Rahul sir saying good things about me. But I end up not being in the Indian team and it can be very frustrating at times. At the same time, the Indian cricket team is the best team in the world. People in the Indian team are also performing at their best and I can’t just replace them. I believe apna time aayega (my time will come).”
Samson isn’t willing to ditch his aggressive approach but admits he can improve his shot selection. “Talking about the IPL, there is only one gear and I think you need to look for boundaries. My role is to go out there and express myself. If I want, I can make 30 and then decide to bat for another five overs and make 50. Your name may come in the newspaper, but that is not my game and that is not my role. I have never played an innings thinking about my own score. I need to keep playing my shots. That kind of a game has earned me a lot of respect in the dressing room and from the team management. But definitely I have to be consistent, but I need to do it with intent,” Samson says.
For a batsman gifted with timing and a wide repertoire of strokes, Samson is working towards tempering his aggression with smart shot selection. There have been umpteen occasions when he looked like toying with the bowling before a soft dismissal ended his stay. “Shot selection has been one of the things I need to work on. Learning about the conditions has been really important for me during these last two years. If I want to play a shot over cover, I need to know if I can play it on a turner. I’ve improved a lot by watching the game on TV. I’d never invested time to watch cricket on TV earlier. But of late, I have really enjoyed watching the World Cup, and you understand how players are taking decisions on the field.”
It was an interaction with Dhoni, which resulted in Samson being glued to the television when a cricket match is on.
“After last year’s IPL, I met Dhoni and asked him what he thinks I need to work on. He told me that cricketing sense is important and that comes when you observe a cricket match and watch closely what the captain is doing and how a bowler is trying to get a batsman out. It was fascinating to watch the way Kane Williamson was able to read the pitch and play accordingly. Being able to read match situations in the middle is very important.”
Samson avoided watching games on television earlier because he felt he was switched on all the time and his single-minded focus was taking a lot out of him. He was too harsh on himself and it all unravelled at the Brabourne Stadium in Mumbai in 2016 when he was dismissed off a ‘straight ball’ and proceeded to smash his bat in the dressing room.
“I was upset that I didn’t make a double hundred,” Samson says. “When you set standards too high, it happens. I scored a century in the first game (at Kalyani) and in three matches, I failed. I got worked up. I got out to a straight ball bowled at 110 kmph at Brabourne. I decided that I am not going to play anymore. I just walked out of the stadium and it was a different level of frustration. If you are not in a good frame of mind, you end up doing things you regret.”
Post the meltdown, Samson has tried to stay detached from the scoreboard. He remains passionate and promises that he has left no stone unturned — during a break post IPL he has reworked his fitness regimen — in being in the best shape possible but does not lose his head when things don’t go his way.
“It is okay to fail. I am more realistic now. If you don’t have a major fault, don’t find a fault. You have to relax. You need to have a cheat meal once a month, you need a holiday. You need to stay fresh.”