While a certain Team India contingent was busy making their way Down Under for the upcoming T20 World Cup, another star-studded team back home was on a journey of its own.
Led by the effervescent Shikhar Dhawan, this Indian team showed up all guns blazing to register their first-ever bilateral ODI series win against South Africa, after clinching the three-match T20I series against the same opponent. On Tuesday night, a comfortable 7-wicket victory in the third ODI sealed the deal for the Men in Blue.
Team India went into the ODIs riding high on their winning momentum from the T20I series against the same opponent. But their hopes of continuing their winning streak were dashed by the Proteas first up, who inflicted a 9-run defeat on the hosts in a rain-affected 40-over game. And although the narrow loss wasn’t any less than a heartbreak, it was Sanju Samson’s gutsy knock that acted as the wound-healer. India started well with the ball, reducing South Africa to 110/4 at the 23rd-over mark. But a late middle-order partnership between Heinrich Klaasen and David Miller (139*) ensured their team got back on track, helping them finish with a competitive total of 249. With a power-packed opening combination in Shikhar Dhawan and Shubman Gill, India would’ve expected to get off to a solid start. But the pair fell inside the first six overs, both being cleaned up by South Africa’s pace attack comprising Wayne Parnell and Kagiso Rabada. By the 18th over, India were tottering at 51/4, with the required run rate going well beyond 9 at this stage. With their backs against the wall, India’s last recognised pair, Sanju Samson and Shreyas Iyer went on a counter-attacking spree. Throughout their 67-run stand, the duo took apart every bowler that came their way, particularly Iyer who went after the spin of Tabraiz Shamsi. Sanju, on the other hand, played anchor. But it was during his 93-run partnership with Shardul Thakur that he actually switched gears and almost helped his team cross the finish line. India needed 73 runs in the last five overs when Temba Bavuma reintroduced Shamsi into the attack. Sanju, on the prowl, not only brought up his first half-century on home soil but also ended up taking 13 runs off the over. Rabada was brought on from the other end but the move backfired as Shardul’s three boundaries meant India had stolen another 14-run over. But in a dramatic turn of events, India lost three quick wickets in the next two overs, with a red-hot Sanju still standing at the other end of the crease. With 30 needed off the last over and Shamsi back on, the roar at Lucknow’s Ekana Stadium only grew louder as fans got behind Sanju, who was on strike. Shamsi’s first delivery was a wide down the leg side, and Sanju followed it up with a six over mid-wicket on the next. 23 off 5 - it was still anybody’s game. Two more boundaries followed, and the excitement was uncontainable with the equation down to 15 from 3 balls. But as soon as Shamsi bowled a dot on the next, the end was nigh. The result didn’t favour India but one of the many takeaways from that game apart from Sanju’s natural ability to smack boundaries at will was the composure with which he batted under pressure - a quality he has consistently displayed - whether it’s on the domestic stage, in the IPL or for India.
So much so that it got even Dale Steyn praying and hoping for the South African bowlers not to stray.
It has been some journey for Sanju in the blue jersey over the past few months. After successfully leading Rajasthan Royals to the final of IPL 2022, the 27-year-old featured in India’s tour of the West Indies, where his gritty half-century in the 2nd ODI helped India chase a mammoth 311 with ease, guiding them to an unassailable series lead. He then went on to star in India’s three-ODI series in Zimbabwe. While India won the first of the three matches convincingly, the second one-day brought with it a tricky passage of play for the visitors. Chasing 168 for the win, India were reeling at 97/4 when Deepak Hooda and Sanju took charge at the crease. This time, Sanju was sent in to bat slightly down the order at No.6. His unbeaten knock once again ensured stability was restored in the innings, as India chased down the target inside 26 overs. For his 39-ball 43 that was laced with seven boundaries and three breathtaking catches behind the stumps, Sanju was deservingly adjudged Player of the Match.
“How much ever time you spend in the middle feels good”, he said after collecting his award.
That hunger to maximise his time on the field - whether it’s with his bat or with the gloves on - whether it’s at his preferred batting position or otherwise - was once again visible during India’s unofficial ODI series against New Zealand, where he was named captain. With 120 runs in three matches, Sanju finished as the series’ leading run-getter, with two of his three knocks coming at the number 4 batting position, while the fifty came in at No.3. The numbers may be ‘unofficial’ due to the nature of the tournament, but to Sanju, they matter just as much as any other official tournament would. For every run he scores, every catch, run-out or stumping that his gloves can lap up takes him one step further in the right direction.
"He almost took the game to a stage where he could have pulled it off. Sanju Samson: Chapter 2.0, going on from here will be really good," said R Ashwin about his Royals skipper in a video shared recently on his YouTube channel.
That flexibility to come in at any given time, assess the match situation and then pace his innings accordingly is a trait that continues to set someone like Sanju apart. And while his batting may seem effortless on most days, there’s no measure of the hard work that he puts in to continuously develop his skills as a finisher, especially having batted in the top order for the most part of his career. It’s also something that the team management probably foresees him doing in the near future, which only bodes well for a player of Sanju’s calibre.
He may not have gotten on that flight to Australia right now. But as they say, ‘good things come to those who wait’. For Sanju, that waiting period is another opportunity to keep working in silence, letting his bat (and gloves) do the talking.