India’s alienation of Sanju Samson a step in the wrong direction

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11 Nov 2021 | 01:53 PM
authorAnirudh Suresh

India’s alienation of Sanju Samson a step in the wrong direction

By freezing Samson out of the T20I set-up, India lose more than they gain

These days, if you’re a celeb or a sportsperson who posts a Tweet that is open to interpretation, it is immediately labelled ‘cryptic’. So keeping up with the trend, let’s just say that Sanju Samson posted a ‘cryptic’ Tweet on Wednesday.

Samson posted three pictures of him making sensational boundary-saves - two of them for the national team - and this Tweet was posted less than 12 hours after the selection committee overlooked him for the T20I series against New Zealand. 

Hmmm, cryptic. 

Was it an intentional dig at the selectors? Was it Samson just showing his frustration? Or did he simply post those pictures because he was bored? We do not know the answer to it.

So let us talk about the things we know.

What we know is that India, in their squad for the New Zealand series, barely picked specialist middle-order batters. Three - Shreyas Iyer, Suryakumar Yadav and Rishabh Pant - is the current number. Four if you also include Ishan Kishan. 

What we also know is that by leaving out Samson on the back of his best-ever IPL season, the selectors did nothing but make the team less dynamic and limit its potential. 

The first is a fact, the second is an opinion. Or is it? We’ll find out soon enough. 

Why Samson should be in India's T20I plans

IPL 2021 turned out to be Samson’s most prolific IPL season yet. He scored 484 runs, and at one point he was a serious orange cap contender. As things stand, he is also averaging 87.50 in the ongoing Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy.

But Samson shouldn’t have been picked because of any of the above-mentioned reasons. He should have been picked because he can do things that very few in the country can. 

One of those is to score quickly in the middle-overs.

Among the areas India are lagging behind, in T20 cricket, is the pace at which they score in the middle-overs. Unless there are two set openers, India go at an extremely moderate rate in overs 7-15 and this tame approach cost them both the Pakistan and New Zealand games in the World Cup. When they rebuild, they rebuild far too slowly and this results in them playing catch-up.  

Pick Samson and you solve this problem, almost instantly. Since the start of IPL 2020, among non-openers (#3 to #6), no one has a better SR in the middle-overs (7-15) than Samson, who has struck at 150.0 in the phase while averaging 47.  

A comparison with those who have been picked for the New Zealand series shows the daylight in difference when it comes to intent. And keep in mind Samson did this whilst playing for RR, a team that arguably possesses the most fragile batting unit in the entire IPL.

Scoring quickly in the middle-overs is a great trait to possess. But Samson also does something that almost no Indian batter does these days: he scores rapidly against spin in the middle-overs. 

Since the start of IPL 2020, Samson has struck at 138.6 against spin in overs 7-15. Among Indians who have scored 200 or more runs against spinners in the middle-phase during this timeframe, no one has a better SR. 

He is also an ultra-quick starter against spin. Since the start of IPL 2020, Samson has struck at 154.9 against spinners in his first 8 balls. Only Pooran (165.5), Raina (166.7) and Sam Curran (206.9) have begun quicker.  Those picked in the New Zealand series squad, as is evident from the graphic below, are not in the league as Samson when it comes to the same.

In case you’re wondering how he fares against pace in the same phase, well, his SR is just the casual 165.1. 

Scoring quickly in overs 7-15 - check

Being a quick-starter versus spin - check

Being an intent machine versus spin in the middle overs - check

Being even more destructive against pace - check

What is the other key metric you look for in a middle-order batter? Oh yes, six-hitting. 

As it turns out, he is pretty good at that too. Since the start of IPL 2020, among Indians, only Hardik Pandya and Ishan Kishan have a better balls-per-six ratio than Samson’s 13.7. 

Reduce it to just the middle-overs (7-15), and no Indian batter hits a six more frequently than Samson. 

Samson is also ideally suited to the middle-order not only because he has spent most of his career there, but also due to him, on par with Pant, being the most flexible batter. He can be an anchor or a counter-punching batter at No.3, a spin-hitter at No.4 / No.5 or even a finisher at No.6. His range, really, is second to none.  

So now to the million-dollar question: if the numbers clearly show that he is a darn good batsman, why, then, has Samson been constantly overlooked?

First, it is important to acknowledge that Samson is a batsman with his own problems and flaws, and all the numbers above only highlight his upside. There are downsides too.  

Samson, for one, despite being a pretty decent spin-hitter, is still vulnerable against leg-spin, and this was exploited by Wanindu Hasaranga during India’s tour of Sri Lanka where he bamboozled the right-hander with his googly. 

Samson, in his career, averages just 23.3 against leg-spinners and this further drops to 17.2 against the googly. 

Since 2020, he’s struggled against the short-ball versus the pacers too, averaging just 11 while striking at 104.8. This is a notable area of concern given the next World Cup will be played in Australia. 

Then there is his shot selection, which, despite drastically improving since becoming RR captain, is still dubious at times. He is very much a work in progress on that front.

But every batter has their own shortcomings and frailties. 

The single biggest factor that has contributed to Samson’s alienation is years of a perception that he is ‘inconsistent’ and is someone ‘not matured enough’ and ‘throws his wicket away’.

This was true until last season, but not anymore. The Samson that played in the 2021 season of the IPL was a completely different batter, who was anything but reckless. 

This was explored in an earlier article, but in short, there was a reason why Samson finished as the sixth-highest run-getter. You don’t do so by being inconsistent and reckless. 

Unfortunately, he still carries the ‘reckless and inconsistent’ reputation, and that has ultimately affected his national-team chances despite him enduring a better year than all his competitors. 

ALSO READ: Arise, Sanju Samson 2.0

For players like Samson to thrive, India’s archaic mindset needs to go

The world, particularly social media, runs through myths and one of the biggest cricketing myths is that Samson has been given too many chances. That is simply not true. 

Across six years, 10 T20Is is all Samson has played. And to date, in national colours, he has never played more than three matches on the bounce. That is simply not an acceptable sample size to judge a cricketer in any format, let alone in T20s where one will fail more than they succeed. 

As renowned statistician Gaurav Sundararaman noted in his article for ESPNCricinfo, role clarity and security is key in T20s: players should be allowed to fail. In his own words, a player “needs to fail in a role for ten-odd matches before being axed.”

Samson was picked for the three-match T20I series against Australia last year as a middle-overs hitter and he played two valuable hands. 

In the first T20I, batting at No.4, he scored 23 off 15 walking into bat in the 7th over, and then in the second T20I, in a chase of 195, he scored a crucial 10-ball 15 that swung the momentum in India’s favour. These were both important impact knocks. 

Yet Samson was bafflingly overlooked for the England T20Is that followed, presumably because he did not rack up runs. 

Such a line of thought is really what is holding India back in T20 cricket. Regardless of the batting position or the role of a player, runs are valued over impact, and that is ultimately proving detrimental. 

We gloat over the phenomenon that is Liam Livingstone, but he is what he is today because England expects impact, and impact only from his bat. They know he will fail 3/5 times, but he is still backed nevertheless and is not dropped after a string of low scores. 

Samson, of late, has shown that he is consciously adopting a more anchor-ish role, but there still exists the capability within him to be the impact batsman that the middle-order is craving for.

But for the world to witness that side of him at the international stage, India will need to do away with their archaic yardstick of judging batters by runs. 

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New Zealand tour of India, 2021IndiaSanju SamsonRishabh PantShreyas IyerIshan KishanSuryakumar Yadav

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