Samson’s chance to add consistency to his X-factor game

In October 2022, in the absence of some ODI regulars who were preparing for the T20 World Cup in Australia, Sanju Samson made heads turn in the home series against South Africa. In three innings, he recorded scores of 86*, 30* and 2*.

That series was Samson’s last streak of three straight ODI innings in his short career of 11 matches so far. The story is much the same in T20Is, of which he has played just 17 since his debut in 2015. In one day, out the next – a recurring theme in Samson’s career.

Nearly ten months on from that series against South Africa – during which he has played just one more ODI, scoring 36 in 38 balls against New Zealand in Auckland – Samson is likely to get another straight run of three ODIs, and possibly three T20Is, in the West Indies with KL Rahul and Rishabh Pant recovering from injuries of varying magnitudes. Unlike earlier, where he knew he was playing in a makeshift squad, this one comes with more promise, of knowing that he is possibly a few compelling performances away from a World Cup ticket.

From that series against South Africa, the unbeaten 86 in Lucknow is his highest ODI score. It was a fighting knock on an unusual pitch, which provided a lot of seam movement and prodigious turn. Samson walked in with India tottering at 51 for 4 in a chase of 250 in 40 overs, with the asking rate a fraction under nine an over.

Samson exhibited immense composure to start with. He was on 15 off 21 at one stage, having shelved his natural flair and opted to dig in. And then he seamlessly switched gears and took over the controls after Shreyas Iyer’s dismissal with India still needing 133 with five wickets remaining. He launched a fierce counterattack with Shardul Thakur for company, but India eventually fell nine short. Samson finished unbeaten on 86 off 63.

Some other things about the knock stood out: Samson’s belief in his methods, the composure despite a spiralling asking rate, and his shot selection. Qualities the Indian team management will expect of him in the build-up to the World Cup.

From Samson’s point of view, even if Rahul regains fitness and walks back into the middle order for the World Cup, India will still probably need a reserve wicketkeeper, given Pant isn’t likely to be ready. This could lead to a toss-up between Samson and Ishan Kishan.

Kishan brings with him the left-handedness that India lack in the top order, but if he has to be in the XI, it will mean a reshuffle of the batting order, since Kishan is a top-order bat. But with India’s top three of Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill and Virat Kohli all but set in stone – barring an injury – fitting Kishan in could be a challenge.

Samson offers the flexibility. He can bat in the top three. Equally, he could be devastating in the middle and death overs as a finisher, like he was in that game in Lucknow last October. Or more recently, at the IPL in a game against defending champions Gujarat Titans, where he, along with Shimron Hetmyer, turned an ask of 112 off 48 in Rajasthan Royals’ favour, blasting a 32-ball 60, which included a stunning takedown of Rashid Khan.

For all his talent and skill, though, Samson comes with a bit of fine print. Of someone who can deliver X-factor performances, but can also be notoriously inconsistent – because of his high-risk game.

He had once summed up his approach by saying, “I’m not here to score lots and lots of runs. I’m here to score a small amount of runs which is very effective for the team.”

It’s an approach team managements over the years have taken a liking to, and believe he is worth investing in. Even though the popular sentiment is that he doesn’t get a consistent run, which is true to a certain extent too.

It’s a game he hasn’t changed over the years whether he has been picked by India or not. Now that he is on the verge of getting a decent run, there is little reason to move away from that method. In fact, a clear run of matches should only will him on to stick to what gives him the best chance of success.

Last year, soon after the T20 World Cup, Samson played the first ODI in New Zealand and made a solid contribution of 36, but was dropped from the last two games seemingly because India wanted to bring in a sixth bowling option in Deepak Hooda. The only other batter who could have been left out was Suryakumar Yadav, whose ODI initiation had not been as successful as it was in T20Is.

Samson was seen as a shoo-in for the T20Is that followed, especially after India left out the seniors in an effort to reboot their approach under a new captain in Hardik Pandya. However, he sat out of the entire series, with Hardik later clarifying it had to “do with the situation”. Whatever the reason was, Samson has to grab every opportunity he gets.

Between now and the World Cup, India have a maximum of 12 ODIs. That’s a decent number of games for Samson to finally be able to nail down a place and deliver more consistently than he has so far. If he can, Samson would have given the team management and himself a fair degree of clarity on where he stands and which way his career is headed in the immediate future.

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