The inclusion of Sanju Samson in the Indian squad for the T20 International (T20I) series against Bangladesh next month is a happy news for all the cricket lovers. He has been in such tremendous form with the bat of late that it was well-nigh impossible for the selectors to ignore the sheer strength of his performances while selecting the squad.
Sanju's early days as a cricketer, his move from Delhi to Thiruvananthapuram and his rise through the ranks to emerge as a contender for a place in the national side has been told and retold several times. It was not a path of roses for him as playing for a state that is considered to be weak brings in its own pressures.
Further, at one stage it appeared that the spat between his father and officials of the Kerala Cricket Association might create hurdles in the career of this youngster, but better sense soon prevailed among all concerned and Sanju was allowed the freedom to do what he loves most, which was playing the game.
He donned the national colours four years ago, when he played in a T20I against Zimbabwe, but has been languishing in the sidelines ever since. He used the medium of Indian Premier League (IPL) effectively to stay in the limelight so that the selectors knew that he was around in case the need arose.
While announcing the T20I squad against Bangladesh, chief selector M S K Prasad noted that it was Sanju's lack of consistency which worked against him in the past. The tall scores that Sanju made in last edition of the IPL and India 'A' series against South Africa 'A', which were followed by good performances in domestic cricket helped him make a comeback.
The icing on the cake was the double century he cracked against Goa in the recently concluded Vijay Hazare Trophy. Incidentally this was Sanju's first century in a List A match, though he has two hundreds in T20 matches and nine in first class cricket to his credit. This also helped Sanju join the elite club of six cricketers who have struck a double hundred in a List A game. The fact that other members of this exalted group include legends as Rohit Sharma, Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag helped to elevate Sanju to a new pedestal as well.
It can be said safely that it was the string of big knocks during the last six months that helped Sanju win the confidence of the national selectors this time around. He has also put to rest the fears that his consistency levels are not of the standards required for a top class player. This indicates that he is ready to take on the challenges that would come his way when he plays for the country on a regular basis.
All players who get the call for national duty possess the required amount of talent, technique and skill but the only those who develop the necessary temperament and fortitude survive at the top level. As has been told repeatedly by coaches, at the highest level it comes down to having the mental strength to fight it out. Sanju has shown by his consistent performances that he has developed the mettle to make a smooth transition from domestic to international cricket.
Picked as a specialist batter
Another factor that would have a bearing on his performance is that he has been selected primarily as a batsman who can also keep wickets, should the need arise. Prasad informed the media in so many words about this while confirming that Rishabh Pant has been their first choice stumper in limited overs matches since the 2019 World Cup.
Pant’s presence in the squad indicates that Sanju would play as a top order batsman, which augers well for him. Sanju is not a natural wicketkeeper and took up this task with an eye to gain selection to the national side in junior cricket. He has improved by leaps and bounds in his work behind the stumps, but the basic fact that this did not come naturally to him remains. He would be better off without the additional load of keeping wickets when he turns up for duty for the national side.
Sanju's selection to the national side as a batsman brings to mind the changes that have taken place in Kerala cricket during the last two decades. Kerala is one of the few states where cricket administrators won recognition at the national level before the players. S K Nair, the doyen of cricket administrators from this state was elected as treasurer of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) in 1993. Though Thiruvananthapuram had hosted a One-Day International (ODI) in 1984 and 1988, it was only with the commissioning of the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi that cricket lovers in the state could look forward to soaking in the action on the ground by watching international matches from the stands more frequently.
It is interesting to note that even when Kochi hosted its first ODI in 1998, the state did not have many turf wickets where players could practice on a regular basis. Cricket continued to be played on matting wickets throughout the state till the dawn of the present century. Batsmen from the state, who were brought up on such wickets, invariably found the going difficult while batting on turf pitches where the ball would behave very differently after pitching. So it was not unusual to find the state side losing matches solely on account of batting failures, despite the bowlers performing commendably.
Cricket fans in Kerala erupted with joy when Tinu Yohannan made his Test debut in 2001. Tinu was followed by S Sreesanth who made headlines by his brilliant performances with the ball in both longer as well as shorter versions of the game. But the fact remained that Kerala cricket contributed very little to the success of these fast bowlers as they both were trained at the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai under the watchful eyes of Dennis Lillee. Like most cricketers from the state of their generation, they also spent most part of the year in Chennai or other parts of the country, where they played their cricket. In fact, other than the erstwhile State Bank of Travancore (SBT), there was no other organisation in the state that even offered jobs to first class players or had its own cricket team.
The decision of the Kerala Cricket Association in 2001 to lay down turf pitches in all districts came as a boon for cricketers, in particular batsmen, from the state. Along with this, measures were taken for training groundsmen who could tend to the wickets laid down and ensure that they received proper care and maintenance. Playing on these newly laid turf pitches boosted the confidence of the batsmen from the state and helped them overcome a huge mental barrier that had hitherto constrained them. Further, this measure also helped budding players from districts such as Idukki, Wayanad and Pathanamthitta, who had till then been placed at a disadvantage due to lack of even the basic amenities for conduct of the game. This move paid off handsomely as can be evidenced from the profiles of some of the leading lights of present day Kerala side who hail from smaller towns in the state.
Sanju was fortunate that Kerala cricket was on the path of ascent when his father shifted base from Delhi to Thiruvananthapuram. The presence of good practice pitches and availability of high quality coaches ensured that he could build on the strong basics that he had imbibed in his early days in Delhi.
His career got off to a splendid start with selection to the Indian Under-19 side for the Asia Cup in 2012. He made his bow into first class cricket in 2011 and made his way through the ranks quickly to take the field against Zimbabwe in a T20 International within the next four years. Sanju has now got a second chance in international cricket, which he should be able to grab with both hands, given the splendid form he is in at present.
Sanju himself has gone on record that everything in his life has happened at the right time. One hopes that this recall to the national team has also come at the right time for him and he is able to make the most of it by piling up huge scores. I join the thousand of followers of the game in Kerala and outside in wishing him all success. It is our fervent prayer that this is only a stepping stone for his entry into the national side for ODIs and Tests.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)