Is it even the IPL season if you don’t inevitably end up discussing Sanju Samson, and subsequently his chances of breaking into the Indian T20I side?
Here we are again, then. New year, new season, but the same old discourse about Samson — #SanjuIn or #SanjuOut?
After an impressive, intent-filled IPL 2022 — which led to a T20I recall and multiple ODI caps — a lot was expected from Samson heading into this season. Especially having shattered the ‘inconsistent, one / two knock wonder’ stereotype across the previous two campaigns.
There was added motivation for Samson heading into this season too, having been ignored altogether for the 2022 T20 World Cup. In a way, IPL 2023 was his ticket to being a regular in the Indian T20I set-up — as someone already on the selectors’ radar, he would have secured his place in the squad for at least the rest of the year with an above-average season.
14 games and 362 runs later, has Samson pushed his India case, or has he instead ended up harming his chances? Let us decode.
Samson’s returns this season — good enough or nah?
Following an underwhelming finish to the group stages, 2(3) against Punjab, Samson’s IPL 2023 numbers read as follows:
14 innings, 362 runs, average 30.17, strike rate 153.4, 3 fifty-plus scores and a highest-score of 66*
362 is Samson’s second-lowest run-tally in the past seven seasons, only behind the 342 he scored in IPL 2019, but that was a campaign in which he batted only 12 times.
On the surface, these are numbers that look okayish. Not head-turning, but certainly not poor or below-average.
Context is always the key when it comes to statistics and, here’s an interesting piece of information: Samson’s average (30.17) and strike rate (153.4) this season are both better than his subsequent figures last season (28.63 & 146.8) which was perceived to be ‘successful’ one for him.
The above figures are not indicative of anything though, because, well, context matters for a reason.
This season, however, he is one of 10 top-five batters with 250+ runs to both average more than 30 and strike at over 150.
18 other top-five batters, including Buttler, Warner and Hardik Pandya, have not met this criteria (despite scoring 250+ runs).
Quite an elusive list to be a part of, but the caveat here is that Samson has the lowest average among the ten, and also the second-lowest strike rate.
Not worth reading too much into the strike rate (which is excellent for a No.3 batter) but, considering he's predominantly batted in the Top 3, an average of 30.17 is not something to rave about.
Samson’s season would have been perfect for an on-fire batting line-up like Mumbai, but considering Buttler, Parag and Padikkal all flopped, RR probably would have benefited more from a 450-run season at an average of 40 and a strike rate of 140. Pretty much his returns in IPL 2021.
It’s truly funny, though, how T20 numbers are relative to how your team fares overall because Samson pretty much had an identical IPL 2022, but it was an ‘effective’ campaign because of Buttler’s superhuman form.
Where has he fallen short?
When a top-order batter struggles to consistently accumulate runs, you tend to look at patterns such as how they fare against pace and spin, how they fare in different phases, whether they have a discernible weakness etc.
In IPL 2023, Samson has fared uncharacteristically badly against pace bowling.
This season, he’s averaged just 20.43 against the quicks — he has averaged fewer against the pacers only in two other seasons in the IPL (2013 and 2015).
So, what has gone wrong?
A close inspection of the lengths bowled to Samson by the pacers suggests that he’s been undone by hard lengths. Nearly 45% of the balls bowled by pacers this season have been in the 6m-8m range and he’s managed to collect just 53 runs off 47 balls while being dismissed thrice.
What if we tell you, however, that hard lengths are something he’s always struggled against? The numbers certainly point towards that.
Below is every single ball Samson faced against pace in the IPL between 2020 and 2022.
Notice something interesting? There’s a drastic drop in his strike rate vs pace against hard lengths — 235 runs scored off 215 balls with 10 dismissals, the most for him on a particular length.
Turns out, this season, teams have consciously *targeted* Samson by bowling hard lengths / short balls, something they did not do across any of the previous three campaigns.
There’s been something else curious this season about Samson too.
When his entry points have been inside the powerplay, Samson has averaged 75.25 and has struck at 171. Conversely, when he’s entered in the 9th over or afterwards, he’s averaged 8.14 and has struck at 103.6.
Could be nothing but a mere coincidence. Or it could be that he’s struggled to construct his innings (and find the right tempo) when he’s entered with the platform already set.
What has clicked?
We’ve spoken about Samson’s struggles against pace this season, but, he’s been incredible against spin.
This season, only Klaasen (260), Gill (264) and du Plessis (275) have scored more runs against spin than Samson’s 219, and in the 7-15 phase, he’s remarkably smashed 183 runs vs spin at an average of 45.75 and SR of 169.4.
Among batters who have faced 75+ balls vs spin in the middle-overs this season, his SR is the second-best behind Klaasen’s 177.7. He’s also smashed the most sixes vs spin this season in the 7-15 phase (16).
At a personal level, IPL 2023 has arguably been Samson’s best-ever season against spin bowling.
Additionally, Samson has also been a quick-starter this season, somewhat backing up last season’s returns. In IPL 2022, he had a SR of 156 in his first 10 balls. The figure has dipped this season, but it’s still at a healthy 130.6. Outside 2022, only once has he ever started quicker in his first 10 balls (IPL 2017, where he struck at 150.9).
What has IPL 2023 done to his India chances?
IPL 2023 presented Samson with a golden opportunity to really break the door open and demand getting selected in the XI, like how Suryakumar Yadav did three seasons ago, but the RR skipper, truth be told, has squandered it to a certain extent. His future is now in the hands of the selectors, and that is never a good thing.
Will he continue being a part of the T20I set-up? Most definitely yes. But will he be a regular in the XI? Probably not. And in a way, this time around, Samson has only himself to blame.
The emergence of Jitesh Sharma — who, mind you, is also a wicketkeeper — has also presented Samson with a new problem to contend with. He should ideally be ahead of Jitesh and every other newcomer in the pecking order, but form and recency bias could just end up setting his T20I career back by a few more months.
New year, new season, but Samson’s story threatens to remain unchanged.