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The intriguing case of Sanju Samson – India’s specialist bench-warmer

Sanju Samson has scored 179 runs for India in T20Is at an average of 44.75 in 2022. In ODIs, Sanju has 284 runs at an average of 71.00 in 2022.

Sanju Samson has scored 179 runs for India in T20Is at an average of 44.75 in 2022 | Walking Wicket (Source_ ©Getty Images)
Sanju has scored 179 runs in T20Is at ave of 44.75 in 2022 (Source: ©Getty Images)

Cricket is a funny game, they say, but it gets even funnier when the management and selectors hide themselves behind a clown’s mask. In the recent 24 months, India’s team management has been running the famous "Royal Indian Circus," not with animals or magicians, but with the cricket players of the Indian team. And one such player who has been made the clown - one who comes in, performs and leaves only to hide behind the tears of a clown, has been none other than Sanju Samson.


While India’s team management has been apparently under the radar for giving longer ropes to players, they have been cutting the rope short like a butcher when it comes to the Kerala player Sanju Samson. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and India’s team management have shuffled Sanju's fate like a deck of cards, with only a few opportunities to play. He has been tagged as a full-time drinks supplier and bench-warming specialist.


Sanju Samson – ‘Friday the 13th’ of Men’s cricket?

Well, as the saying goes, "fortune favours the brave," but in Sanju’s case, he has been the bravest yet the unluckiest, to say the least. Sanju's bench-warming saga began in 2014, when he was named as Mahendra Singh Dhoni's backup keeper for 5 One-Day Internationals (ODIs) and one Twenty20 International (T20I) against England, though he didn’t make his debut then. He made his eventual first appearance for India in a T20I against Zimbabwe in Harare in July 2015.


Following a purple patch in the Vijay Hazare Trophy in 2019-20, in which he scored an unbeaten 212 against Goa where he reached the double hundred mark in a mere 129 balls. After four years, he was called back to India's T20I squad for the series against Bangladesh in 2019, but he was benched for the entire series. The series of bench-warming continued for Samson in 2019, when he was called up to replace an injured Shikhar Dhawan against the West Indies, but he didn't play a single game.


In December 2019, he was named a member of the T20I squad to play against Sri Lanka. but could only play in one of the three matches. In the third T20I of that series, he was dismissed on the second ball after hitting the first for a six. He was again selected for the T20I series on India’s tour of New Zealand in early 2020, again replacing an injured Dhawan, but failed to spark any interest for himself and couldn’t create any impact with the bat with a string of low scores. Even in the five matches he played leading up to the 2022 T20 World Cup, Sanju was only able to manage one fifty (77 against Ireland) and didn’t have a marathon innings, and as a result, he didn’t make the cut for India’s T20 squad for the 2022 World Cup.


Read More: NZ vs IND, 1st ODI, 2022-23: Latham's belligerent 145*, Williamson's steady 94* take NZ home

A good start to a career: A stigma for a longer rope?

As mentioned earlier, Samson made his India debut in 2015 — yes, that is a good 7 years back. When we talk about players debuting in 2015 for India, some of them have become legends of the game, while others have decided to quit cricket overall. But with Sanju, he has played a total of only 27 international games for India from that point onwards.


Ishan Kishan, Rishabh Pant and Deepak Hooda have been tested in more or less similar batting positions as Sanju. Ishan Kishan debuted in 2021 and has played 30 international matches, left-handed wicketkeeper batter Rishabh Pant made his India debut in 2017 and has featured in 125 international games, while Deepak Hooda who received his India cap in 2022, has already played 23 international games, just 4 less than someone who made his debut 7 years ago.


While all the above-mentioned players had fantastic starts to their international careers, Samson had a very terrible start to his Indian career. In 2015, Samson only played one T20I game where he scored just 19 runs, after which he did not feature for India for the next five years. Samson then featured for India in 2020, and in the six games he played, he could only manage 64 runs, striking at 139.13 with his highest score being 23. To add insult to injury, Samson then featured in three straight games in Sri Lanka for India where he scored only 34 runs at a poor average of 11.33 and an even worse strike rate of 94.44.


Read More: Have India unearthed an all-season bowler in Arshdeep Singh?

India vs South Africa, 1st ODI, Top Performances_ Sanju Samson scored 86 off 63 against South Africa in 1st ODI _ Walking Wicket  (Photo_ ©BCCI)
Sanju scored 86 off 63 against South Africa in 1st ODI (Photo: ©BCCI)

Samson vs the rest of the lot in T20s

Hooda who has already batted for India in 12 T20I innings, has already scored a century (104) in his first three innings. Rishabh Pant already had a 30+ score in the first two innings and a fifty in the first 10 innings of his T20I career for India. Similarly, Ishan scored 52 in his first innings for India and also registered a score of 89 within his first 10 innings for the country. This initial spark tempted the selectors and the management to back these players ahead of Samson, and the numbers too justified the same.


With the kind of competition India has, where there are plenty of backups and almost three players fighting for one slot for almost every batting position - be it openers, one down or the finisher’s role. India have a minimum of three players on standby, to say the least. And with the kind of start Samson had to his international career, he should consider himself lucky to be even feature in India’s squad.


Samson 2.0 since 2021: A deserving candidate?

Players

Year

Mat

Inns

50s/100s

HS

Runs

Avg

S/R

Sanju Samson

2022

6

5

1/0

77

179

44.75

158.41

Ishan Kishan

2022

16

16

3/0

89

476

29.75

127.96

Deepak Hooda

2022

15

12

0/1

104

302

33.56

150.25

Rishabh Pant

2022

25

21

1/0

52*

364

21.41

132.85

Sanju Samson has been that turtle from "The Tale of the Rabbit and the Turtle," where the slow and steady turtle wins the race in the end. Unlike Rishabh, Kishan and Hooda, who had tremendous starts to their careers but faltered as the road progressed further, like the rabbit in the old story, the story has been replicated for Samson. Ever since 2021, Sanju 2.0 has remoulded himself to be match-fit for India and is striving to play for India at the highest level.


Even after being the best player in terms of average (44.75), 11.19 percentage points higher than the second best, and also in terms of the most important thing in T20 cricket - the strike rate – on the basis of which he is ahead by 8.16 percentage points (158.41) when compared to the second-best player Hooda (150.25), it is just disheartening to see that he has the fewest games compared to the rest of the bunch. The question then arises: Are the selectors ignoring recent performances and only judging Sanju on the basis of historical data? If we talk about ODI cricket, Sanju Samson has been in tremendous touch, scoring 284 runs in nine innings at a strike rate of 105.58. Sanju also has two fifties under his belt, and in fact, he is the top six-hitter for India in ODIs this year, as he has hit 14 sixes in nine ODI innings so far in 2022.


Read More: SKY overtakes 1000-run mark in T20Is in a calendar year; What exactly makes him special?

New Zealand A tour of India_ Sanju Samson scored 120 runs from 3 games against New Zealand A in three match ODI series _ Walking Wicket (Image_ ©File Photo)
Samson scored 120 runs from 3 games against NZ A in One-Dayers (Image: ©File Photo)

Where does Sanju stand in India’s scheme of things?

With a 50-over World Cup in less than 12 months, India’s road map to winning the World Cup doesn’t look any better either. Indian selectors face the same problem of having too many options but only enough to cover one batting position (number four or five) but even with Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli being certainties for ODIs and Suryakumar Yadav’s heroics in T20Is, one cannot ignore the dynamic batter in ODIs too.


In the past 12 months, whatever cricket Sanju has played for India in ODIs, it has been as a number four or five batter. With an 86* against South Africa in a run chase surely catching many eyeballs, it would be difficult for the team to ignore Samson for that spot. With the exploits of KL Rahul in 2020 as a number four, the throw of the dice for number four will be between Sanju Samson, Rahul and Surya, which might again result in Sanju warming the bench as number five would be Rishabh Pant, followed by Hardik Pandya, to say the least, followed by a spin bowling all-rounder and the bowlers.


Now arises the question of the decade for Sanju. Will he be warming the bench again? With the ODI squad looking almost settled, even if Sanju is selected in the squad, he can only come in as a replacement for any injured player or serve the drinks to the starting eleven, which has sadly been a regular occurrence in his international cricket journey.


With more than 24 months until the T20 World Cup, this is the time when Sanju can actually make a case for himself. India’s team management should definitely give Sanju an extended run in T20Is as a number three or as an opener and give him the license to launch, which India desperately needs in the powerplays, which might just do wonders for a player like Samson who likes to hit sixes from the word go.