As India played their second T20I against West Indies in Thiruvananthapuram, Sanju Samson walked out onto the field to a huge cheer, louder than even that for skipper Virat Kohli.
How many people on the planet can boast of commanding this level of fanfare?
It was on 12 October this year that Samson smashed his career best of 212* against Goa in the 50-over Vijay Hazare Trophy. He became only the sixth Indian batsman to score a List A double century. This swelled his overall returns in the tournament to 410 runs from just eight innings, at an average of close to 60 and an impressive strike rate of 125.
On 24 October, less than two weeks later, he would have been on the moon when he was named in the T20I squad for the Bangladesh series.
This is well & truly through the gap by @IamSanjuSamson!!! Congratulations on being picked in the T20 squad. Soft hands, nimble feet and hopefully a sane head...go Sanju grab ur moment, long overdue. @BCCI— Gautam Gambhir (@GautamGambhir) October 24, 2019
Unfortunately, in the following few weeks, he had not much to do except carry drinks on and off the field. Despite Rishabh Pant managing only 33 runs in the T20I series, Samson wasn't given a chance, not even in the last match.
Quite unceremoniously, he was then axed from India's original squad for the West Indies T20Is, inciting criticism from experts.
Sanju Samson not in the squad against the West Indies. How do you drop a player without giving him a single chance? And what do you think it's doing to the confidence of the cricketer?— Joy Bhattacharjya (@joybhattacharj) November 21, 2019
Very disappointed to see @IamSanjuSamson dropped without a chance. He carried the drinks for three T20Is & has been promptly discarded. Are they testing his batting or his heart? https://t.co/ydXgwOylBi— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) November 21, 2019
Hard on Sanju Samson but I guess he is much better off playing games rather than just travelling around. Big vote of confidence in Rishabh Pant but the team will expect more from him.— Harsha Bhogle (@bhogleharsha) November 21, 2019
Sanju Samson losing place in the squad v West Indies without playing a game is quirky selection. Hopefully this won’t affect his morale. Samson’s exclusion means Pant doesn’t have to keep looking over his shoulder. But also means he must now deliver without delay— Cricketwallah (@cricketwallah) November 21, 2019
It was a move that gave a sense of the thought process of the Indian team management and the selection committee. The men who matter were clearly willing to give Pant a longer rope.
It was only after Shikhar Dhawan's injury that Samson regained his place. This meant that he was selected more as a batting option.
Now, the most pertinent point here is that the Indian management needs to differentiate whether they are looking at Samson more for his batting skills or keeping skills.
It is no secret that Pant's wicket-keeping is a work in progress. It was evident in the Bangladesh T20Is with the 22-year-old collecting the ball (marginally) in front of the stumps on more than one occasion.
Credit to him, he has set it right during his down time but there's no hiding the fact that he has been sloppy behind the wickets against West Indies as well.
However, if the Indian think tank is weighing the two in terms of batting prowess, they are probably missing a trick. Simply because there are several others, like Ruturaj Gaikwad and Devdutt Padikkal, who did much better than Samson in the Vijay Hazare and the Syed Mushtaq Ali matches.
Notwithstanding Pant’s failures of late, there is hardly any comparison between him and Samson when it comes to batting.
Let's have a look at the numbers then.
Sanju Samson's T20 figures – an average of 27.50 and a strike rate of 126.59 from 146 T20s – show nothing extraordinary. His IPL average has also consistently been in the 20s from his debut in 2013 to 2017. His graph, though, is on an incline in the last couple of years, with him closing in on a batting average of 35 and a strike rate of 150 in IPL 2019.
Pant, on the other hand, is being given such a long rope for a reason. Pant averages 33.01 from 95 T20s at a strike rate of 156.37. His IPL numbers are also far superior to Samson. From 54 IPL matches, the Delhi boy averages 36.16 and strikes at 162.69.
If neither of the two aforementioned reasons explain Samson's selection and the team was just looking to apply some pressure on Pant by doing that, it is extremely unfair on the Kerala batsman.
On one side, Kohli and Rohit Sharma have been advocating to "leave Pant alone", citing that he is a 22-year-old. By the same token, Samson, at 25, is not much older. Emanating out of all this confusion, Samson already has undue pressure mounting on him, even before he has got a game.
One can only imagine what all this media hype would have done to his psychology. Despite all the good things that are being said about him, one can not really perform from the dugout and needs to step out on the field to make a difference.
"The dream is to play and win the World Cup for my country. I don't know in which year it will happen. But that is my dream," Samson had once said.
The reason why the delay in his inclusion is creating such a big stir is that Samson was earmarked for greatness from quite an early stage in his career. Right from 2013, when he made his IPL debut for Rajasthan Royals, he was considered a special talent and an obvious successor to MS Dhoni.
Samson also managed to break into the Indian team as early as July 2015. However, inconsistent domestic performances and suspension by the Kerala Cricket Association on account of dissent in August 2018 derailed his career briefly.
With oscillating stances, you never know how much to read into these statements anymore, but outgoing chief selector MSK Prasad had talked about grooming backups for Pant.
"Of course, we have been grooming backups (for Rishabh) across all formats. We have the young KS Bharath doing well in the longer format for India A. We also have Ishan Kishan and Sanju Samson doing well in the shorter formats for India ‘A’ and domestic cricket,” Prasad had said.
With less than a year to go for the T20 World Cup, it is hard to comprehend how you can groom a player without giving him a taste of the international circuit. Three T20Is against Sri Lanka in January, next year, is the time to try Samson out in international cricket, otherwise it might be a bit too late to bring him in the frame.
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