Sanju Samson is eight seasons old in the IPL. If you’ve followed the tournament through these last eight years, it’s safe to assume you’ll recall hearing this phrase, at least a few times: this could be his year.
The 26-year-old, during this same period, has had a fledgling — and frustrating — stint in international cricket, tallying seven T20I caps, nearly six years after making his India debut.
On the 20th of January, Samson was appointed Rajasthan Royals captain. On the 20th of February, Samson was dropped from the Indian squad for the T20Is against England.
At once, you could reckon, coming into this edition of the IPL, that he was staring at a potential catalyst, while also standing at a possible crossroad.
Could this be his year, one wondered. Alas, once bitten, twice shy… in this case, bitten so many times by the missed bite of the cherry it’s almost a reflex action to not think down that route. But something did feel distinct about this campaign. So one whispered the notion, at best, pre-season. Is it now time to scream it out from the laptops?
This isn’t a knee-jerk reaction to the first century on captaincy debut by any player in the IPL; this isn’t a hyperbolic assumption following the highest individual score by a Rajasthan Royals batsman; this isn’t an exaggerated response to one of the more staggering innings you’re going to see in T20 cricket.
This is a sense of far-reaching talent being at the cusp of meeting — finally — its famously promised potential… and this isn’t based on gut or feel.
Why could this be his year?
For one, Samson finally has a fixed spot in the batting order, as compared to his oscillation in the top-four since the return to the Royals in 2018, or the dance anywhere from number one to seven in the years preceding that. That this fixed spot is at number three makes way more of a difference in Samson’s case than you would imagine. In all T20s, he averages nearly 33 and scores at more than eight runs per over batting at three, compared to an average of 22 and a scoring rate of 7.5 per over anywhere else. In the IPL, before this season, Samson averages 36.56 and scores at 8.54 per over from number three – as opposed to 20.47 and 7.65 per over elsewhere in the order.
Second — and this was on full display through his sumptuous century on Monday night — this isn’t a captain who believes in any misplaced notions of ‘batting like a captain’. By his own admission, in an admirably honest interview with ESPNcricinfo ahead of IPL 2021, Samson states that he bats as per the decided role. And this is a captain who buys wholeheartedly into the McCullum-Morgan school of limited-overs cricket — score, and score more — which was wholesomely evident in Kerala’s campaign at the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy earlier this year. While qualification into the knockout rounds just eluded them, Kerala were the proverbial neutral’s favourite, tonking their runs at 9.27 per over through five league stage games, with two dizzy headline acts: chasing down 218 in 19 overs against Delhi, and 201 inside 16 overs against Mumbai.
This second factor — an aggressive brand of T20 gameplay — coupled with the confidence of the batting resources around him, provide an ideal platform for Samson to explode this season. If he can tonk 119 runs from 63 balls on a day where Ben Stokes fell for a duck and Jos Buttler scored 25, imagine his ceiling when those two guns are firing.
For these possibilities to meet their promise, for these opportunities to be converted, there is an immediate threat for Samson to counter, in bucking his own trends of the past. Samson has started each of the previous four IPL seasons showing sparkling touch, only to go from sizzle to fizzle at the bat of an eyelid. Both of his two centuries prior to Monday evening had come in the first couple of outings of the 2017 and 2019 campaigns, respectively, and the beginning of the 2020 edition was marked by Samson’s Sharjah spectacles. And yet, how much do you remember of the same blade beyond these knocks, from the last four years?
It can’t be a lot. If you count only the first three games of each season from 2017 to 2020, Samson tallies 619 runs from 12 innings, with two hundreds and five scores above 50 – an ‘average’ knock of 52 from 31 balls. Bunching the rest of those four seasons together, you get an aggregate of 925 runs from 43 innings, with only three half-centuries – averaging 22 from 16 balls per game.
Samson is also infamous, till date, for following up his big scores with periods of absence; the Sharjah start last year was the first instance of Samson posting back-to-back 50+ scores in the same IPL season.
The RR skipper will get a chance to arrest both these patterns soon – the latter immediately, the former over the course of this campaign. The venues where Rajasthan are playing, at large, seem tailor-made for his style of batting (and that of his team): 10 of their 14 games are at Mumbai, Kolkata and Bengaluru, comfortably the three highest-scoring grounds in the IPL since 2018.
Of all his answers in the above-mentioned pre-season interview to ESPNcricinfo, one particular response stood out. Asked if it was his personal goal to become consistent this IPL, this was Samson’s reply: “My goal will be to win more matches for my team.”
He may or may not find the consistent scores that define elite batters in this day and age. But that right there is an elite mindset, a school of thought that has been known to succeed in recent times.
It’s that elite mindset, which makes one want to scream it out aloud: eight years on, this could — really — be the year of Sanju Samson.