More than seven years after his List A debut, Sanju Samson made his first century in 50-overs cricket earlier this month and turned it into a double . He has now returned to the India squad after a long wait.
In this interview, he opens up on the crucial break that made it possible, the near-impossible task of replacing someone like MS Dhoni, and the question everyone has been asking him for a while now: why doesn't he make these big scores more often?
In 2018, you didn't have a century in any format. What do you feel about your year so far?
Before the start of the season, I had close to two-three months of rest. I didn't play any competitive games. I've really used the time to good effect. When you continuously play cricket for a long time, you tend to keep going with the motions. Having two to three months really helped me realise why I started playing cricket. The fun part [had been] lost. It was focusing more on the result and where I have to reach and what I have to do. Those three months have given me a more clear picture of why I started playing. I've started enjoying my cricket. I've started loving batting. Before, I used to bat for long because I had to bat. Now, I love to bat. The love towards my game has changed and automatically I think the results show. The more you enjoy something, the more it gives you back. That's what has changed and I'm really enjoying this season.
Did you work on your cricket during that break?
(Chuckles) The only thing I know is to play cricket and work on my fitness. So I just gave time for that. Fitness was the most important thing. If you keep playing, you can only maintain your fitness. But if you get a break you can take it to the next level. The first month I worked mostly on my fitness and later on my skills.
"As a wicketkeeper I've been shuffled around a lot. I get selected to the IPL team or India A or even Kerala, and sometimes the management says I have to field"
Did you feel you had to do a bit extra, considering you had failed a fitness test last year?
Absolutely. It does play on your mind. Just before that fitness test, I was my fittest ever, actually! I was working hard. But it happened just after the IPL and I had a small niggle in my knee, so I didn't train for one week. I went and did the fitness test directly, without training or even running in the ground. I thought I was at my fittest and I could easily do it, but it didn't happen. It was unlucky but I've been working hard and I'm confident about it.
You've raised your level now?
Definitely, not only my running, but I've also gained on my muscle work. I have a bit more muscle and have bulked up for the season.
So that explains the double-hundred?
(Laughs) Definitely, yes. Batting for the whole 45-50 overs and running hard between the wickets - I was batting with Sachin Baby and he made me run a lot of doubles and triples. I also had to keep for 50 overs.
After that innings was the biggest challenge of my life. People were seeing that after 20 overs [of keeping], I had a headache. They were saying, you can stop and another keeper can come in. But I wanted to challenge myself. It took two to three days to recover after that.
What clicked for you on that day?
Things have been really clicking for the last one or two months. The way I've been batting in the India A series, the 91 I scored off 48 balls; the start of the tournament [Vijay Hazare] also I was batting well. I scored 60-odd against Karnataka and unfortunately got run out at the bowler's end. Things were going really well. I could feel something special was coming. I didn't feel like it would be a 200, but I knew something big was coming.
The results in cricket keep varying. If you're batting well, if you play six or seven innings, you're only allowed to succeed once or twice. But when you succeed, you have to make it big. I thought the whole tournament I'd been playing well and I was happy that I was able to convert. I think I played normally that day. I never went after the bowlers or smashed the ball. I just looked at the ball and reacted and things came on nicely that day.
What were some of the conversations you had during that innings?
I was in the zone, so you just keep quiet and enjoy it. Lot of fun happening in the middle - I was the happiest when I was playing that innings. I was laughing a lot and I got my first hundred. I was spending some time in the 90s and I got over it after hitting a six to complete my first List-A hundred. That was all very special. Even after I'd got 50, I told myself that if I get a hundred today then I can get a double. The way I was playing in that tournament, I knew that if I complete a hundred, I have to make it something special.
A lot of people must ask you how come it's taken so long to get that hundred. Was it a relief to get that out of the way?
Yeah, seriously, it was. If you're not good enough and you're not scoring that hundred, then you can say that you will improve. But I have been playing some really good innings and getting out in the 90s or 89 not out and all that. I knew it would come. If you're desperate about it, it won't come. Everything in my life has happened at the right time, so I just have to keep on preparing and if it has to happen, it will happen. I was happy to wait this long - and when it happened, it was a double.
Were there times in the past when you felt frustrated?
I have come a long way. I debuted at 18 or 19 for India and in that time, I've had a lot of ups and downs. I've seen success early in my life and failures as well. So I'm mature enough and experienced enough to understand that things will happen. Everyone was saying, "You've not got a hundred, you've not got a hundred." But what I said to myself was, "Sanju, everything has happened so nicely. You've scored two IPL hundreds." I've scored hundreds in a 20-over game, so it's not a big thing to score one in a 50-over match at that level. I've scored against the best bowlers in the world. If I get desperate and say to myself that I need to score more centuries in domestic cricket, it will bring unwanted pressure on me. I just go out there and enjoy myself. That's what you need to get results.
After two-three years at this level, did you feel the expectations were too much?
I was fortunate enough to play with people like Rahul Dravid at the age of 19 and have him as a coach at India A. And meeting lots of people, like Ajinkya Rahane, Shane Watson, Steve Smith, Ben Stokes, Joe Buttler - I talk a lot with them about the game.
The main thing is that you need to understand what you're aiming at. I'm a wicketkeeper-batsman and the Indian team has the most successful captain and keeper in the world. So MS Dhoni was someone I had to replace if I wanted to play for India. It was not going to happen. You have to be realistic about what you're aiming for. At that point I knew I had a lot of time to prepare myself. You need to be prepared to make yourself worthy to play in the Indian jersey. I was lucky to get four or five years in the domestic season, in the IPL or in the India A set-up. Everything doesn't happen quickly.
For someone who was drilled to hit along the ground and described as a calm player by your early coaches, you're quite an aggressive batsman these days. How did that happen?
It's a very funny thing. My father never allowed me to hit the ball in the air when I was young [in Delhi, where Samson grew up] and then I started hitting sixes when I came to Kerala. I can't tell you how it happened, really. I love hitting the ball and it just happens. Nowadays if you ask me whether I like a perfect defensive shot or a six, then definitely I would go for a six. That's how the game has changed for me. Now, the boundary- and six-hitting comes more naturally to me. I practise that a bit more. I like to go after the bowlers and the shots.
"The results in cricket keep varying. If you're batting well, you're only allowed to succeed once or twice. But when you succeed, you have to make it big"
But sometimes that will come in the way of, say, a hundred, right?
Yeah, it will. The joy of playing allows me to play like that, I think. In this type of style, failures will happen. I'll fail a lot. But you've to accept that that's your game plan. When you succeed, you've to make it big.
But I've developed another style also. If you ask me to rotate the singles or stay at the crease and create partnerships, I can do that. I think I have two types of game. If there is nothing to achieve or there is no set time, then I go with my natural style. It's very important to have two styles.
How did you raise the level of your batting?
I've worked hard with my Rajasthan Royals coach, Zubin Bharucha. Spending five or six years with him, I think he has known a lot about my game. Lots of people have helped me. I can't name everyone. Everyone has given me something. I believe the best coach you have is yourself. I have sat back and understood what this generation or what this Indian team is going through. And if I stand there one day, how will I respond to a situation. I'm watching TV, seeing what the team is going through and thinking about how I would apply my game.
You had many off-field distractions last year, like issues with the Kerala Cricket Association. Did that affect your mindset?
There have been lots and lots of issues, but there's no point in going back and talking about them. Lots of things happened, good and bad, and I'm happy that they happened and made me who I am. If only good things had happened and if everyone was on my side, I would be much softer than who I am. Now I'm ready to face any situation.
As a wicketkeeper, how hard is to get to that [Dhoni] level and what have you done?
As a wicketkeeper I've been shuffled around a lot. I get selected to the IPL team or India A or even Kerala and sometimes the management says I have to field [instead of keeping]. And I think: are you serious? (laughs) Because everyone wants me to keep and be picked for the Indian team as a wicketkeeper. But I don't want to impose myself. I'm happy to field for the team. In the IPL, they felt I'm a much better fielder than I am a keeper because I move around and take good catches. I said, okay. I can't really tell them I have an Indian selection [pending]. So whatever the team demands, I'll do it. I think I'm a really good fielder too, so if they want to play me as a batsman, I can do that. I can move around quickly in the field. If they want me to keep, I can keep too. I've been keeping regularly for my state side in one-day cricket for the last three to four years.
You once said that you felt your batting concentration was going down in red-ball cricket because of the keeping. Has that improved?
That has changed. If you are an automatic keeper, that doesn't happen. But, as I said, if I play as a batsman, mentally, it is a bit challenging. But now I've coped with it and know how to deal with it.