High risk, higher rewards. Just pure middling of the bat and breathtaking striking of the ball aided by the gift of timing, technique and precision. Sanju Samson was more than just a breath of fresh air for Rajasthan Royals in IPL 2022. On the prowl from the get-go, he wasted no time in announcing his arrival every time he stepped out to bat. Whether it meant being the attacker or the anchor, the approach was clear. To play every ball on its merit, to put the pressure back on the opposition, and to leave maximum impact on the team’s total, even if it sometimes left the fans wanting for more. More of his class, more of the sweet sound coming off his bat, more than his fiery and entertaining cameos.
It was a season that saw Sanju rack up 400+ runs for the second time in a row, including 69 boundaries, the most he’s ever hit in a single IPL season. His strike rate of 146.79 was the second-best among captains this year, and no other batter scored more runs in the first 10 balls of their innings than Sanju. The Royals skipper was equally sharp behind the stumps, with his full-stretch diving efforts while keeping to a pace battery comprising Trent Boult, Prasidh Krishna, Kuldeep Sen among others, and his lightning quick glovework standing up to the wily spinners.
With 458 runs, 14 catches and two stumpings in 17 matches, it was the second-most successful IPL season for Sanju the batter, and his best as a wicketkeeper. But more importantly, thanks to the Royals dominating their way to a top-two finish followed by earning a deserving place in the final, it was a season to cherish for Sanju, the leader. In only his second stint as full-time captain and with a brand-new squad at his disposal, he led the Royals ship with the calmness of a monk, rarely ever expressing disappointment if the on-field plans didn’t fall into place. What set him apart was also the fact that he trusted his instincts to back the young guns at defining moments - like handing the ball to debutant Kuldeep Sen in the final over of a tense match against LSG, or getting behind Obed McCoy to deliver the 20th over against DC, despite Obed going for runs earlier in the match.
This refreshed avatar of Sanju isn’t newfound. Right from his early cricketing days, having spent the majority of his childhood playing in Delhi, he was known to have a penchant for the big shots and a fearless attitude that defined his aggressive game. And it has reflected in his batting over the years, both at the domestic level and in the IPL, despite coming off as a mild-mannered individual off the field. Mixing caution with aggression and topping it up with a dash of elegance has been his forte, and his envious hand-eye coordination makes every shot look effortless.
However, this combination brings its fair share of obstacles too. In a recent episode of the YouTube show ‘Breakfast with Champions’, Sanju explained how the rapidly-evolving game of cricket requires one to be brave, not just to succeed but also to fail.
"I\"m not here to score lots and lots of runs. I\"m here to score runs that are effective for the team," he had said.
Sanju’s quote was misinterpreted on social media to an extent as soon as the episode came out, with some pointing fingers at his lack of intent to score big. But in reality, it is how Sanju approaches his game as a modern-day batter - maximising risks and putting the team first, even if it comes at the cost of a lower batting average - or simply shuffling his own batting position to suit the match situation. Most of his dismissals this season came after he took the attack to the bowlers trying to up the ante, or just to keep the momentum going from the other end. But it doesn’t take away from the fact that his appetite for runs continues to grow, as has been evident from his exploits on the first-class circuit in the past, and his consistent, handy contributions on the IPL stage.
In our season-opener against Sunrisers Hyderabad, Sanju’s 27-ball 55 set the tone for a strong start. Batting at a strike of over 200 and with renewed vigour, he powered the Royals to their first 200-plus total of the season. It wasn’t the first time he had done this. In our first game of the 2020 season, he smashed 74 off just 32 balls against Chennai Super Kings and guided the Royals to 216/7, eventually setting up a crucial victory. The following year, his scintillating ton against Punjab Kings in a stiff chase almost helped us to an unbelievable win. For three consecutive seasons now, Sanju has scored two half-centuries and a century in the opening match where the team has crossed the 200-run mark - either batting first or chasing. On all three occasions, Sanju has taken home the Player of the Match award, one even coming in a losing cause.
Possessing an armoury of exquisite shots is one thing, but to back it up with the necessary strength is another. During the five-month Covid-19-induced break in 2020, Sanju spent time working on improving his fitness, followed a strict diet and training routine to increase his power-hitting abilities. This year, he was at the NCA at Bengaluru to prepare for the season ahead after finishing his national duties. He then continued his journey in the bubble during the season as well, working with the team’s Strength and Conditioning Coach AT Rajamani in the gym at the Royals’ team hotel in Mumbai.
The results were there to see on the field. A stronger and fitter Sanju ensured that the Royals came out as one of the most aggressive teams this season. And while Jos Buttler continued to be the destroyer-in-chief for the most part, the skipper relished a slightly different role this time around, dispatching every ball in his arc. So much so that the news of his exclusion from India’s T20I squad for the South Africa home series had little bearing on his performances thereafter. Instead, Sanju’s very next innings, against Gujarat Titans in Qualifier 1, started with a bludgeoning six over long-on. And the same performances made it hard for the selectors to look past him, eventually earning him a recall in India’s T20I squad for the ongoing Ireland tour.
With the T20 World Cup scheduled in October this year and a 5-T20I series against the West Indies in August, it will be the perfect opportunity for Sanju to make a strong case for himself, when he gets a chance. Having played 13 T20Is so far and with a fruitful IPL season on his back, the 27-year-old will once again look to create maximum impact with his contributions, not just as a batter, but as someone who’s grown into his role as a captain, adding value to the team with his leadership qualities.