“You can\"t be a batting captain. You\"re a captain when you are fielding. You don\"t have to allow captaincy to come into your head while you are batting.”
These words, said even before making his debut as captain for Rajasthan Royals, tell us that Sanju Samson was innately ready for the huge responsibility that lay ahead of him. There has been an undeniable sense of calmness enveloping almost everything he’s said or done at the Royals ever since – as he’s grown into the role every single day.
An instinctive, explosive batter from the start of his career - Sanju knew that he couldn’t let his captaincy take anything away from his intrinsic ability with the willow. Yet, there is more to him than just his clarity as a captain and a cricketer. Over the past 6 months and more, he has earned the unconditional trust and respect of his players, coaches, and peers.
His captaincy faced its biggest test on his debut itself, when we played our IPL 2021 season opener against Punjab Kings. In a breath-taking contest for the ages, Sanju emerged with the first hundred of the season with an incredible, unforgettable 63-ball 119 in chasing a mammoth target of 222.
Sanju played a lone hand for most of the innings, taking the game deep with five runs required off the last two deliveries against Arshdeep Singh. Then - in what became a huge moment and talking point – he stroked the ball to long off, but decided to keep the strike and denied a single to Chris Morris who had just joined him at the crease. That meant Sanju had to go for maximum off the last ball to win the match.
As it turned out, he did go for the six over cover, and for a few seconds it did feel like he’d done the unthinkable, but the ball’s trajectory dropped steeply and he was caught near the boundary line, breaking Royals hearts in the process. If we look at it from a neutral perspective, it was a batter in form backing himself to take his team over the line, which he almost did. He didn’t change the way he batted right through the knock – we could still see the same swashbuckling batter we’ve always loved. But maybe, just maybe, the captaincy gave him that sense of responsibility and confidence to take that decision for the team. He knew the buck rested with him as the man in form, and he embraced that responsibility fully.
And he had all the support from our Director of Cricket Kumar Sangakkara, who backed his skipper through and through. They share a mutual respect that’s visible to one and all.
"I think Sanju backed himself to get the job done and he nearly did. He was five or six yards short of hitting the last ball for a six and sometimes when you know you\"re hitting the ball well and you\"re in form and you believe that you can do it, you\"ve got to take that responsibility. And it was really encouraging to see Sanju do that,” Sangakkara had said after the one that got away, showing how much he believes in him as a batter alone.
At just 26 years of age, Sanju now maintains a very zen energy about him on the pitch and off it. Watching him on a given day – you’d be none the wiser on whether he led his team to victory the night before, or didn’t score many in a big defeat. He’s just the same, no matter what. Like he’s often heard exclaiming to the rest of the boys in jest, “Parvaah ni karni!”, Sanju has placed a huge importance on ‘smiles within the camp’, whether we win or lose.
Sanju’s calm and composed demeanour, ability to spread genuine joy, and latent never-say-never attitude sets him apart from everyone around him, in a way that people learn simply by observing him. And in return, he earns their utmost respect without ever seeming like he asked for it.
“I like to carry everyone with me. I am not the kind of leader who will stand up tall and say that this is what need we need to do, or this is what I want everyone to do. I am very much flexible in understanding people. I understand that people are different, and they have their different mindsets and characters, but at the same time, I need everyone with me,” he said before that game against Punjab.
These words resonate with what the youngsters in the camp had to say about their skipper. In a recent conversation with Chetan Sakariya, our 23-year-old pacer who made his debut for India in July, he told us about the support that Sanju provides to his juniors. Chetan praised Sanju’s commitment to his players even outside the Royals camp, something that helped him during the tour to Sri Lanka. This is a recurring theme in conversations with other youngsters in the squad as well, who speak about messages and calls Sanju made to them even when he didn’t need to – just so he could make them feel comfortable.
And not just the youngsters, but even someone as experienced as Jos Buttler - who might be away from us at the moment but has given us a piece of his heart - had amazing things to say about Samson’s captaincy.
“I\"ve really enjoyed playing under Sanju\"s captaincy. I don\"t think it has changed him at all as a person. He\"s quite a free-spirited, very relaxed kind of guy and he tried to get that across to the team and that\"s how he wanted us to play as a side. It is really important as a leader to be authentic, and I think Sanju is very much that,” Buttler asserted in the first half of the season. Stokesy, who’s also away from us at the moment, had earlier said “Sanju has the respect of the entire dressing room, and we’ll fight for him in every game.” Without long speeches, winding conversations and overbearing monologues in team meetings, Sanju has found a way to make everyone believe in themselves, him, and the team.
Sanju Samson’s story tells us that one doesn’t need to deform, to form a star - you just need to find the one that was lying within all along. He has not only aced his role as captain, but has also topped the batting charts for the franchise with 277 runs in 7 matches in the first half of the season. With new and returning players like Liam Livingstone, Evin Lewis, Tabraiz Shamsi and Glenn Phillips set to sync up with the rest of the boys, we are looking forward to a cracker of a show in the UAE. And one thing’s for certain, they will all play with a smile on their face – for themselves, for the franchise, and for Sanju.