radio disco polo The tale of Sanju Samson
It is day one of Kerala v Services at the Conor Vayal Stadium in Tellicherry. An hour and a half into the morning session, when Kerala lose their first wicket, Sanju Samson straps on his helmet, steps over the boundary rope, and turns to glance at the sky.
Apart from the pavilion and a small office building at the opposite end, this is an open ground ringed by coconut trees. It is picturesque in a small town way and perhaps its most distinguishing feature is its drinks trolley. Kerala’s cricketing accomplishments are modest, but its cricket grounds have the most distinctive drinks trolleys in the country. Up in Wayanad, the ground staff wheel out a life size model elephant at every drinks break. Here in Tellicherry it is a fishing boat.
The last time I watched Sanju bat up close was in an entirely different setting. It was in April last year, when he made a 34 ball 52 for Rajasthan Royals against Kings XI Punjab in the IPL. He caressed the third ball he faced to the cover boundary and sent his sixth soaring over the tent like roofs at the Sharjah Cricket Stadium. The crowd, a sizeable chunk of which represented the region’s expat Malayali population, went mad.
Here in Tellicherry there is no crowd to speak of. I am the only journalist in the makeshift press enclosure in the upper deck of the pavilion; a couple of others will arrive later in the day.
Kerala v Services is an unimportant match in the larger scheme of things. Both teams sit in the middle of the table in Group C, the lower tier of the Ranji Trophy, and have close to no chance of promotion. But it is an important match for Sanju, a chance to extricate himself from his first prolonged slump. Since his return in September from England, where he was part of India’s ODI and T20 squads, Sanju has made over 50 in only one out of 16 innings for India A, Kerala and South Zone. The first six matches of his Ranji Trophy season have been a story of promising starts: 24, 17, 5, 22, 89, 30, 19 and 41. With two games to go, the sequence of scores could come to mean anything. Add 113 and he will average 40. Anything less than 23 and his average will dip below 30.
Growing up playing with friends in the Police residential colony in the North Delhi neighbourhood of GTB Nagar, Sanju and his older brother Saly couldn’t get away with low scores. If they were out early, their father, Viswanath Samson, who organised these tennis ball matches, would tell them to go home.
“The gate to our complex was some 100, 200 metres away, and Sanju would walk away slowly, stop midway, and turn,” Viswanath says. “I’d say, ‘Bol diya na? Ja [I told you, no? Go].’ Then he would stand by the gate, this small boy, seven or eight years old, standing there, far away, looking at me.”
Viswanath chuckles at the memory, but his word was final. Sanju had to go home.
A centre forward for the Delhi Police for 22 years, Viswanath looks every inch the retired footballer in his cargo shorts and polo neck T shirt. He is compactly built, with a closely trimmed moustache and the beginnings of a paunch.
Once, when Sanju was bowled, his father demanded an explanation. “What to do, I didn’t want to go home,” Sanju says. “So I told my father the ball hit a hole and turned.” The next day, the children of the colony formed a barricade around their patch of road, waving vehicles away from it. Viswanath had arranged to cement their pitch.
Apart from the time he devoted to football training, Viswanath’s days revolved around his sons’ cricket. He would bring the children of the neighbourhood together, draw lots and make them bat until each was dismissed. He would take Saly and Sanju to the practice sessions of the Delhi Police cricket team, among whom Viswanath had a number of friends. “I would tell them to bowl to Sanju and Saly, however fast you want. They were 25 year old bowlers, and the boys would play them comfortably, even if they bowled from 15 yards.”
Both brothers were soon playing for their school and pushing for selection in Delhi’s age group teams. Still, Viswanath felt their talent might hit a wall. “I was a small man,” he says. “Big big people play cricket in Delhi businessmen, IAS [Indian Administrative Service], IPS [Indian Police Service], people in politics.”
So, around a year after his retirement from football, Viswanath retired from his job and decided to move back to Thiruvananthapuram, his home town. It was a counter intuitive move, to go from Delhi, one of Indian cricket’s nerve centres, to Kerala, a state with a marginal cricketing presence and a team that has long been one of the Ranji Trophy’s punching bags. From their debut in 1957 58 to 2001 02, Kerala reached the second round only twice. In the last 13 seasons, when the tournament has been split into divisions, they have been in the top tier just once. Only two Kerala players, Tinu Yohannan and Sreesanth, had played for India when the Samsons moved back in 2006.
Most batsmen in India grow up playing a see ball hit ball brand of cricket on the streets, and learn to play with a straight bat when they come into contact with organised coaching. Sanju followed a slightly different trajectory.
“In Delhi, I was more of a ‘V’ player,” he says. “I didn’t want to get out, or my father would send me home. Only after I came to Trivandrum [Thiruvananthapuram] I started playing all these shots.” He demonstrates with his hands a leg side whip presumably from off stump and a steer behind point.
Sanju found the freedom to play those shots when he arrived at the Thiruvananthapuram Medical College ground as an 11 year old, and came under the wing of Biju George, who had been coaching there since 2000.
Biju is 49 but he is still slim and wiry, with no hint of grey in his hair or in his thick moustache. The only sign of all the years he has spent on the coaching circuit among other roles, he has served as a talent scout for Kolkata Knight Riders, fielding coach for India Under 19, and head coach of the Kuwait national team is the relative size of his forearms. He lines them up against each other and you realise the right forearm is significantly bigger.
“Before the Champions League [in 2013], he had to play Mumbai Indians and Mitchell Johnson,” says Biju. “So he was thinking, ‘What to do, how to get that sort of speed?’ Obviously nobody here will be that quick. We had the concrete [pitch], we put a coir matting on top of it, stretched it out, and poured water. Then we put these flex board sheets, plastic sheets, on top of that. And guys were bowling from 18 yards with the hard synthetic ball.
“It was flying. He was getting hit, then he was playing. When he went there, he could handle Mitchell Johnson with absolute ease. So you try anything with him, he is ready. Not like, ‘Sir, I’ll get hit, IPL is coming up.'”
Raiphi Gomez has a mediocre first class record as a seam bowling allrounder but he has always had the potential to play outlandishly explosive innings. In 2010 he smashed an unbeaten 88 off 29 balls for Kerala in a 50 over match against Hyderabad. He hit five sixes and a four in the final over of the innings.
Among the senior players who took him under their wing when he first arrived at Biju’s academy, Sanju is closest to Gomez. He even began supporting Barcelona because Gomez is a fan.
“Before each and every match I call him, discuss the conditions, how I can prepare,” Sanju says. “He really knows my character very clearly, he knows my game really clearly, he is like my big brother.”
Sanju picks out a six he hit against Knight Riders’ left arm spinner Iqbal Abdulla in 2013. “Raiphi bhai said Kolkata has a pretty slow wicket, so if you can wait for him [Abdulla] and aim over midwicket, you can hit him,” Sanju says. “So I hit a six there.”
Watch the shot now. On air, Harsha Bhogle’s first reaction is a chuckle that gives way to a fully articulated “Ha ha!” Then he picks up the key quality of the shot. “He just sat on the back foot, waited for the ball, and waited and waited. he’s deposited it waaaay over midwicket.”
Sanju struck 22 sixes in 23 IPL innings before the start of this edition and while that is a pretty good rate of six hitting, it is the quality of his shots that makes you sit up. There is a video containing all 17 he hit in the 2014 season, and it makes for an exhilarating watch. Here is Sanju, 19, flat batting L Balaji over long off and launching Murali Kartik inside out over extra cover. Ben Hilfenhaus bowls a slower ball and Sanju clears his front leg a fraction and smacks him over wide long on. Dale Steyn comes steaming in and Sanju simply extends his arms through a straight drive, left elbow high, and lifts the ball back over his head. It travels 81 metres.
Apart from the shot against Kartik, where he has skated smoothly away from his stumps to create room, Sanju has made no premeditated movements. Always his head is still. A chest high short ball from Siddarth Kaul ends up in the stands behind long off, and the broadcaster cuts to a square on replay. From that angle, you get the best view of Sanju’s backlift, with his arms in a classical diamond shape, his wrists cocked, his head still, and his weight evenly distributed but ready to shift onto the front foot.
It is an utterly orthodox position, and he ends up playing a shot that can only be described as a down the line topspin forehand. It is a ridiculous shot, and he has made it look simple a quality that has excited seasoned watchers of the game. Writing on ESPNcricinfo after the 2013 IPL season, Bhogle picked Sanju as one of his three players for the future.
That cover drive came in a run chase against Pune Warriors in Sanju’s fourth IPL match. He had walked in with Royals needing 29 from 17. The shot came off the first ball he faced, off the back foot, off Wayne Parnell. He got on top of the bounce off a fairly decent delivery fourth stump, back of a length and hit it between mid off and extra cover. Sanju made 10 off six. Royals won with a ball to spare.
In Tellicherry, against Services, Sanju cannot be contained, and by the time he has got to double figures he has already hit two fours, a whip wide of mid on, against an off stump ball, and a square drive. At lunch he is 32 not out. To the second ball after resumption he jumps out of his crease to hit left arm spinner Saurabh Kumar over the top. He doesn’t quite reach the pitch and skews the ball high, but the cover fielder can’t latch on.