Talent and temperament aplenty in teenaged Samson
Sanju Samson recollects what happened one January afternoon last year precisely. He was in Jaipur, attending the selection trials being conducted by Rajasthan Royals. Sreesanth, the former India and Rajasthan Royals fast bowler, banned for life by the BCCI for spot-fixing in the IPL, had taken Samson to the trials.
After IPL 2012, Kolkata Knight Riders, the first franchise to scout and pick Samson, had severed ties with him. Samson returned to Kerala, the state he plays cricket from, anxious.
"I can never forget the day when I attended the Rajasthan Royals selection trials. Sreesanth bhai took me there last January. After the IPL and Champions League in 2012, Knight Riders told me that the BCCI had asked the teams to trim the squads and they had decided to drop me and they were sorry about that. So I never expected another IPL team soon," Samson told ESPNcricinfo last month, during the Ranji Trophy match between Kerala and Himachal Pradesh in Telicherry.
However, Sreesanth had been impressed by Samson's attitude and batting and wanted the 18-year-old to play for Royals. "One day I was batting in front of Rahul Dravid and Paddy Upton. I started playing strokes," Samson said. "It was my day and I just expressed myself in front of a legend like Rahul Dravid."
Samson will always cherish what happened next. "He [Dravid] came and directly told me, 'Sanju, you have a very special talent and I would really love to make you play in my Rajasthan Royals team. Would you play for us?' He asked me like this. That question really shocked me. I was really surprised and excited, and wanted to record that moment in my memory. He had seen me for barely two days. So what he said to me, I never expected that," Samson said, a big smile lighting up his face.
Samson still cannot believe. But on Friday, he became one of the five players retained by Royals ahead of the 2014 season. Along with Stuart Binny (Royals) and Manan Vohara (Kings XI Punjab), Samson is one of only three uncapped India players to be retained among the 24 cricketers held back by the franchises. Samson is the youngest of them all.
Before today, Samson hit the national headlines when he hit a fearless half-century, in only his second match for Royals, in an exciting chase against Royals Challengers Bangalore. Although that was the only fifty he could register in the 11 IPL matches, Samson raised his bat to three half-centuries during the Champions League T20 in September-October, where Royals finished runners-up. One of those half-centuries came in the final, which was against Mumbai Indians.
Chasing a tall target of 202, Royals lost Kusal Perera quickly. It did not matter to Samson, who displayed temperament and an alert eye to pick gaps. He blazed eight boundaries in his 50. When Samson departed in the 12th over Rajasthan were 117, but they faltered. It was an evening when Samson turned franchises' heads.
Samson is the younger of the two sons of a former constable in the Delhi Police, who now runs a petrol station near Trivandrum - his father moved back to Kerala when Samson was 10. A friend of his father introduced Samson to Biju George, who has remained his coach since.
Living in Vizhinjam, a harbour town south of Trivandrum, Samson and his brother Sally would commute roughly 25 kilometres every day, changing two buses to attend George's camp, which is held at the Medical College Grounds in Kerala's capital city. "We would travel almost two hours to get to the nets. It was not boring on the way there because we were excited to get there. On the return leg, though, it would be tiring," Samson said. But he never shirked training.
It is easy to see Samson is a hard-hitting batsman. But that is just one part of his skillsets. Samson plays strokes all around the wicket. According to Kerala coach Sujith Somasunder, Samson has become better with his shot selection. He is very decisive with his shot-making now, the coach said: "If there is a shot he thinks is on, he will play it."
Another factor that aids Samson, is his ability to stay in the present, which allows him to remain sensible at crucial moments. That was on show last week in the Under-19 Asia Cup final, which India won. Samson was one of his team's two centurions.
It is this cool temperament that has allowed him to play international bowlers in tight situations, without getting affected by the atmosphere and occasion. Remember, Samson has just turned 19. But in a one-on-one communication with him, you can plainly see his clarity of thought. He seems to listen to every word, but only respond to what is important.
Last week when Royals sent him the offer letter for retention, Samson did not have any doubts. He signed it instantly. He explained why that is: "Within 20 days spent with Royals last year, I realised it was like playing for my home team. That is when I decided I was going to stick with them as long as possible."
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo