For the second time in as many nights, a right-handed No. 3 batsman hogged the limelight in the Indian Premier League. If AB de Villiers was all audacious and brazen strokeplay in a losing cause in Indore on Monday, then Sanju Samson was the cynosure on Tuesday (April 11), showing that even in Twenty20 cricket, there can be multiple ways to skin a cat.
Given that he has been around for so long now, it is sometimes easy to forget that Samson is still only 22 – extremely young in both cricketing years and otherwise. Of his talent, there has been little doubt, but Samson is also a shining example of the truism that talent alone can only take you thus far.
Given what he brings to the table, and the fact that he has been rated so highly for so long by someone as accomplished as master mentor Rahul Dravid, it is somewhat of a surprise that Samson doesn’t exactly boast earth-shattering numbers. He averages a middling 35.26 in 37 first-class games and a more modest 28.95 in 57 50-over List A matches. And if one thought his true calling was T20 cricket – which one shouldn’t, of course, given that he is no one-dimensional biffer and basher – then even there, he hasn’t quite lived up to either the promise or the hype.
And yet, when he purrs along like he did at the MCA Stadium in Pune on Tuesday night, you can see just how much skill lies coiled in that lithe, unassuming frame. His maiden T20 century wasn’t an accident, it wasn’t quite a surprise; the only surprise was that it came as late as his 98th game and in his 92nd innings. It will also be surprising if, having had a taste of three figures, his first will also be his last.
It has been a difficult season for Samson, the low point being the showdown with the Kerala Cricket Association for alleged indiscipline towards the end of last year. Samson could have imploded and faded away, but he seems to have emerged from that potentially character-damaging incident stronger and more determined to prove his worth.
It must have helped that he had the benevolent father-figure of Dravid to turn to at Delhi Daredevils. Handpicked for greater glory by the former Indian captain when he was the skipper at Rajasthan Royals four seasons back, Samson has since turned exclusively to Dravid for guidance, succour and support. The usually understated Dravid appeared more delighted than his ward himself when Samson brought up his hundred on Tuesday night, a knock that could herald the turning of a corner that seemed endless until very recently.
“I want to thank Rahul sir for supporting me the last three-four years,” Samson said following his white-ball heroics. “A support from a legend like him, his motivation at practice sessions and backing… very blessed to be with him.”
Samson has been blessed in more ways than one. He has the rare gift of timing and, for a young Indian batsman, absolutely no difficulties in standing up to express pace. Fortunate enough that the IPL has exposed him to some of the top fast bowlers in the world at a very young age, he has seldom been hurried into his strokes. He seems to have that extra micro-fraction of a second to play the ball, the sign of an above-average batsman, and there is an assurance both to his strokeplay and his defence that is extremely encouraging.
Samson has been blessed in more ways than one. He has the rare gift of timing and, for a young Indian batsman, absolutely no difficulties in standing up to express pace. Fortunate enough that the IPL has exposed him to some of the top fast bowlers in the world at a very young age, he has seldom been hurried into his strokes.
What has been disappointing has been his shot-selection and a certain apparent casualness that has seen him slide down the pecking order when it comes to the national set-up. Well worth remembering, again, that he is still only 22, and probably just one massive first-class season away from reinforcing his claims. But that massive season must come quickly.
On Tuesday, it was the runs that came quickly in the early stages of his innings. Linking up with Sam Billings in the middle in the second over, Samson exploded into a flurry of boundaries without hitting one stroke in anger. The ball mesmerically flew off the middle of the bat at the slightest of contact, screaming across the turf and leaving fielders at point and cover clutching air. There were six fours in his first 14 deliveries as he hurtled to 31. Pretty, extremely so.
It was always on the cards that the arrival of Imran Tahir and Adam Zampa, Pune’s two overseas leggies, would pose a different challenge. Samson went a little bit off the boil, but he wasn’t going to chuck it away. As Rishabh Pant cut loose, Samson played well within himself; by the time Pant was run out, Samson had reached 62 off 48 – the last 34 balls had produced only 31.
Then came the final, frenetic push. Two more fours, four further sixes – 62 to 102 in just 14 deliveries. Turbo-charged, and yet unhurried, the loss of neither poise nor orthodoxy. Effortlessly, Samson put on an exhibition of innings-building that conformed neither to norm nor to convention.
Samson joined an illustrious list of Indian centurions at the IPL. A majority of those are household names, all but one – Paul Valthaty – have donned India colours. Samson already has one international cap, his sole T20I appearance coming nearly two years ago. Now, he must set his sights higher. As Rahul Dravid must already have told him, one suspects.