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Match Analysis

Samson and Iyer invert the narrative to enhance their white-ball credentials

It is unfortunate that India may not always be able to fit both into the XI, but the future is still theirs to grab

Shreyas Iyer and Sanju Samson. If you consume a lot of social media discourse, you might think they are sworn enemies.
They batted together in an ODI on Thursday, but we'll get to that shortly. It's the T20 World Cup season, so let's talk about that format for a bit.
Iyer has played 15 T20Is this year, and Samson six. Between the two of them, one clearly occupied a higher rung in India's selection hierarchy as they built towards the World Cup. Neither Iyer nor Samson is part of the final 15 for the World Cup, but Iyer is among the reserves. Samson isn't.
You can make the argument that India undervalue Samson and batters of his type, who are prepared to take risks early in their innings even if that approach can compromise their average.
But there is another argument, made not just by armchair fans but also on occasion by former players, that Iyer doesn't deserve the backing he has received from the selectors and team management, particularly because he has an issue against the short ball.
"Lately there's been a lot of talk on social media that Sanju should replace Rishabh Pant, or he should replace KL Rahul. But my thinking is very clear. Whether it's KL Rahul or Rishabh Pant, they're playing for their team. If I think about competing with my own team-mates, I'm letting my own country down, I'm letting my own Indian team down"
Sanju Samson
Let us address that argument. Iyer's game against the short ball is set up to fail the "eye" test. His technique is unconventional, and - particularly in white-ball cricket - involves a lot of shuffling around the crease - across to the off side sometimes, away from leg stump at other times - to try and exploit gaps in the field. It can look spectacular when it comes off, and extremely awkward when it doesn't.
And on numerous occasions this year, in the IPL and in international cricket, it's not come off.
But have a look at his numbers. Iyer has averaged 40.25 against pace in T20Is this year, while striking at 135.86. It is not a hugely impressive strike rate, given that only Ruturaj Gaikwad and Ishan Kishan have scored slower than him among India batters who have faced at least 50 balls from fast bowlers, but it's far from terrible.
And those numbers begin to look acceptable when you consider his record against spin this year: an average of 37.00, and a strike rate of 158.57, which is bettered only by Suryakumar Yadav among India batters who've faced at least 50 balls from spinners.
Playing spin through the middle overs has been a weakness for India's batters - Suryakumar apart - over recent seasons, and the team management was probably trying to address that issue by picking Iyer as one of their designated spin hitters. His numbers against spin suggest he has done that job more than adequately, and it is for this reason, probably, that India have named him among their World Cup reserves.
You could argue that Samson deserved the same sort of run Iyer has had, but there is only so much space available in a middle order. Selectors often have to pick one among multiple deserving candidates, and give the chosen candidate a decent run in the side.
Samson understands the competition he faces, and recently put out a video addressing this subject.
"I'm very fortunate that I've made a comeback into the Indian team after five years," he said. "The Indian team was one of the world's best teams five years ago, and it's the number one team now as well. Finding a place in the number one team, in the XI [is not easy], there's so much quality in the team. But at the same time you also think about yourself, and when you'll get your next chance. But you have to be in the right frame of mind, and think positively.
"Lately there's been a lot of talk on social media that Sanju should replace Rishabh Pant, or he should replace KL Rahul. But my thinking is very clear. Whether it's KL Rahul or Rishabh Pant, they're playing for their team. If I think about competing with my own team-mates, I'm letting my own country down, I'm letting my own Indian team down. I always like to think in a positive way - when you get that chance, just go out and do it for your team."
On Thursday, as on every other day they play cricket, Iyer and Samson went out to do it for their teams, in a fascinating, rain-shortened ODI in Lucknow. On an unusual pitch that provided plentiful seam movement and prodigious turn, while also allowing both teams to score at more than six an over, they came together with India 51 for 4, and needing 199 runs to win at a fraction under nine an over.
Their partnership neatly inverted the narrative about their batting styles. Iyer was the early aggressor, launching an assault on Tabraiz Shamsi when he was still new to the crease. On a pitch where the ball was turning appreciably, Iyer showed off exactly why his game against spin is rated so high; at one point, he hit three successive fours off Shamsi, to three different parts of the field: a slog-sweep, a skip down the pitch to swipe the ball wide of long-on, and then a brilliant back-foot punch through the covers.
Samson launched Shamsi for one early six, but otherwise took his time playing himself in. When Iyer brought up his half-century, off 33 balls, Samson was batting on 15 off 21.
Then Lungi Ngidi dismissed Iyer, for the fourth time in four ODI meetings. He did so, of course, with a short-of-good-length ball. At that point, India needed 132 off 80 balls, with five wickets in hand. A difficult task, but Iyer's innings had kept them in the game.
Samson then took over, and kept the chase alive in Shardul Thakur's company. He survived a tight lbw shout off Shamsi and then began peppering the boundaries: a pair of swivel-pulls off Wayne Parnell and Ngidi made for particularly sweet viewing, showing off his quick judgment of length and his effortless timing.
Thakur biffed Kagiso Rabada for three fours in an over, and the target seemed within reach, but his wicket brought two more in its wake, and the momentum was entirely with South Africa. Except Samson was still there. South Africa had one over of Shamsi to bowl, and they were trying to delay it for as long as they could, given the pasting he had already suffered against Iyer and Samson.
Shamsi came back when it was no longer possible to hide him, but India were surely too far away, needing 31 to win. A wide and a Samson six to start the over suggested they might still have an outside chance, but it wasn't to be.
"Their bowlers were bowling well, but Shamsi was a little expensive, and we thought we could target him a little," Samson said during his post-match press conference. "He had one over left for the end, and I knew that even if we needed 24, I was confident I could hit four sixes, and with that in mind I was trying to take the game deep."
India fell short on the day, but Samson knew they had played their cards right. "We fell short by two shots - one four and one six. If we had hit those, we would have won."
A calm, rational assessment, entirely divorced from the emotion-driven narratives of media-speak. All top players probably think this way, but Samson is one of the few who speaks that language in press conferences.
Samson had just played an innings that showed why he should be heavily involved in India's white-ball plans going forward. As had Iyer. It is fortunate from a team perspective and unfortunate from that of the individuals that India are not able to pick both - or often either - in their line-ups, but the future is still theirs to grab.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo