If you have ever dropped your jaws in amazement on one night as Sanju Samson effortlessly decimates the opposition, and then instantly smacked your face with your palms when he walks back to the pavilion without troubling the scorecards for the next many nights, you are not alone.
Few players are able to imbibe a feeling of awe in a fan one moment and then turn it into complete anguish the very next moment the way the Rajasthan Royals captain does. Over the years, he has made it somewhat of a norm to start an IPL campaign with a resounding pop and then fizzling out as the season progresses.
No wonder, Samson averages nearly twice as much in his first 3 games of any season as he does in the rest. In fact, he has scored around 37% of his runs for Rajasthan from only the first 3 games of each season. Given this statistic, it used to be justified for him to routinely be put under the pump by experts and analysts for being “inconsistent.”
Note the “used to,” for there is a catch here. Criticism for his mercurial flair “used to” be warranted at a certain stage; when, after destroying the RCB bowling in RR’s 3rd match in 2018 with a 45-ball 92 that comprised 10 sixes, he only managed an average of 21.9 and strike rate of 124.6 in the next 12 games that season; when he scored a sublime century against SRH in his 2nd game in 2019, ripping the likes of Bhuvneshwar Kumar apart, and did not score another 50 in the remainder of a heartbreaking season.
There was enough promise in his early season performances, but just as much disappointment in his ceaselessly fascinating ability to play a “what was that?” shot, and find frustrating ways to get dismissed for the rest of the season, every season.
Even in 2020, when the IPL traveled to the UAE, a similar narrative was running its course. After 2 breathtaking innings, a 74 (32) against CSK and 85 (42) against KXIP, he only surpassed double digits in 2 out of the next 8 matches. Shouts of complacency, irresponsibility, and a lack of composure started doing the rounds, as it generally does with players of his caliber when they fail to convert their potential to performance.
However, when he finally registered a noteworthy score that season, on October 22nd, 2020, there was a pleasant change in his approach. Albeit in a losing cause, Samson pieced together a 26-ball 36. What was “pleasant” about this innings? The fact that he did not seem to be getting carried away by his own convictions.
After punishing Sandeep Sharma for consecutive boundaries off the 4th and 5th balls he faced that evening, he quickly shifted his focus to rotating the strike, waiting for the next opportunity at which to slash his bat with the class he possesses. Watching him trying to get his eye in was quite unusual, considering that he had been getting out every 9.625 deliveries for the 8 games that preceded this one, including a 3-ball duck only a couple of nights earlier.
But this “unusual” behavior was soon to turn into a norm– a norm just as much as watching him perish as soon as he got to the crease had been until then. That fairly unsuspecting knock against SRH has been somewhat of an inflection point in a career that spans 119 innings.
Sanju Samson’s Career in 2 Phases
|Before Oct 22, 2020||Since Oct 22, 2020|
|% of Runs in 4s/6s||56.0||61.2|
Since October 22nd, 2020, Samson’s average and strike rate have experienced a change of +12.6 and +10.0 respectively. Consequently, he has been scoring more runs in 4s and 6s and facing fewer non-scoring deliveries than ever before.
To label a player “inconsistent” for more than a year and a half since their record witnessed such an incredible transformation is quite comical. And at the end of several innings that he has played in this period, including every knock of his this season, commentators on air have been engaging in this comical discourse.
If the numbers themselves are not enough, here is how they stack up against the performances of his contemporaries:
Only 9 batters to have faced at least 200 balls in this period have a better average than him. Of these, only 2 have a better strike rate than him. 1 of them is his RR teammate Jos Buttler, while the other is CSK captain Ravindra Jadeja. With a focus on his role in the RR lineup, it is worth mentioning that no player has a better average or strike rate than Samson at 3 and 4, the positions he generally toggles between, since October 22nd, 2020.
Sanju Samson’s IPL Record (Oct 22, 2020 – present)
|Phase||Balls||Average||Strike Rate||Dot %|
|Middle, Phase 1 (7-11)||186||87.7||141.4||28.5|
|Middle, Phase 2 (12-16)||144||41.7||173.6||25.7|
Other than the fact that he is scoring more runs in boundaries, he is also paying more heed to innings construction without compensating on his strike rate. Not only does his strike rate improve as he progresses through the middle overs, but he also lets fewer balls go unscored.
There is not a huge difference between the percentage of 1s and 2s he has been taking since the upturn, but his ability to survive at this average-to-strike rate ratio is impeccable. It suggests that he has started to value his wicket more, play shots that evade the fielders and reach the boundary more consistently, and no longer just goes boom-or-bust.
No player who has faced at least 100 balls in this period averages more than his 87.7 in overs 7 to 11, while only 1 player – Moeen Ali – scores at a better rate. But Ali’s superior strike rate of 147.1 is constricted by an average of 29.7.
And if his average takes the cake in overs 7 to 11, his strike rate reigns supreme in overs 12-16, with no batter scoring at a better rate than him in this phase. He tops this list among the heavyweight likes of AB DeVilliers, Suryakumar Yadav, and Glenn Maxwell, each of whom has sealed many a game for their franchises with their middle over proficiency.
Moreover, Samson is agnostic to most bowling types– a trait that is extremely rare, especially given his superlative record of late. He strikes at 140+ against pace as well as spin, indicating that he is more than prepared to take down any matchup that the opposition think tank might devise for him.
When gauged from this lens, his improvement as an IPL batter becomes apparent. What becomes even more apparent, however, is that the view that many commentators hold about him still being unreliable and rash has absolutely no legs to stand on.
In a career marked by such a strong inflection, there is no limit to the ways in which the 27-year old’s numbers, which had been his greatest foe for years, can now back his exponential talent. But it is worth taking a moment to ponder how this change actually transpired.
Does the fact that he now has to shoulder the responsibility of captaincy have anything to do with his increased sense of responsibility? It might be one, minor contributing factor, but it is definitely not the basis. He was appointed captain in 2021, but the change in approach started towards the latter half of the 2020 season.
What is it, then?
In UAE 2020, he thrived in his first two outings in Sharjah. But as the pitches wore off and RR traveled to grounds with wider boundaries, his temptation soon started to end in agony. Maybe he used to get tempted by a delivery that fell in his arc or impelled a lofted shot, and take one risk too many, too early in his innings. Between 2018 and India’s tour of Sri Lanka in 2021, more than ⅔ of his dismissals were a result of the ball getting ballooned by fielders.
Maybe he used to get complacent. Maybe he was not given proper clarity surrounding his role, especially in his erratic stints with Team India under the Kohli-Shastri regime, which resulted in more busts than booms in his urge to score quickly. Maybe he got trapped into overhitting his favorite, most aesthetically pleasing shots with predictable setups by the oppositions.
Or, maybe, players with his level of superior ability take time to unlock their full potential. It may sound cliche, but it is most definitely true. Samson has been playing in the IPL since before he turned 20. And from such a young age, he started getting chronicled for his repertoire of shots and attractive style. His skills were dribbled around in different phases by both the franchises he played for, be it the Powerplay with DD or even death-over hitting for RR. And he did not fail to prove his mettle in any of them.
Now that he has settled into a clearer role and has developed the ability to back his exceptional shotmaking with an eye for consistency, the marvelous results are out there for everyone to see, not only in the IPL but even in the little that we have seen of him since his return to national colors this year.
Yet, it seems like his previously mercurial flair has been fitted into a stereotype– one that many players have succumbed to in the recent past. And it is going to take some time for fans, commentators, and analysts alike to come around to the fact that he is no longer the Sanju Samson who simply whacks every ball in plain sight… that he is now the Sanju Samson whose effortlessness can now be looked forward to even beyond the first 3 games of the season. Or so we hope, as RR prepares for their 4th match of the season today.
With a T20 World Cup to be played in Australia later this year, there is definitely a lot on Sanju’s bucket list. For their own sake, the critics that he is yearning to silence should start to take themselves off the list before he forces them to.