IPL 2022: Why Sanju Samson's season is key for both the player and Rajasthan Royals

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IPL 2022: Why Sanju Samson’s season is key for both the player and Rajasthan Royals
© Provided by Firstpost IPL 2022: Why Sanju Samson’s season is key for both the player and Rajasthan Royals

Only four franchises from IPL 2021 have retained their Indian captains for the 2022 season. One, Mumbai Indians skipper Rohit Sharma, is the most successful captain in IPL history and leads the Indian cricket team. Rishabh Pant, the other, was named Delhi Capitals captain last year only after Shreyas Iyer opted out. Like Rohit, Pant is a superstar of Indian cricket.

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The other is Sanju Samson of Rajasthan Royals. Until 2019, Samson had played a solitary T20I for India, back in 2015, when a second-string Indian side toured Zimbabwe. Then, just before the 2020 IPL, he played three more. There were only three more before Rajasthan appointed him full-time captain. From these seven matches, Samson had scored 83 runs at a strike rate of 119.

There is no doubt that Rajasthan had taken a punt with Samson. They had gambled before, on Shane Warne after his retirement, and on Rahul Dravid, a Test-and-ODI specialist in the last legs of his career. But Samson was even riskier, for unlike Warne and Dravid, he was not a giant of the game and not an automatic choice to lead a team in the most high-profile T20 tournament in the world.

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Samson had started with Rajasthan in 2013 under the tutelage of Dravid. In his early days, he struggled to score quickly, but Rajasthan backed him. When Rajasthan were suspended in 2016 and 2017, he spent the years in Delhi Daredevils (now Delhi Capitals).

It was in 2017, for Delhi, that he changed drastically as an IPL batter. The second phase of his IPL career took off that season. The Sanju Samson that returned to Rajasthan in 2018 was this new avatar.

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Between 2017 and 2020, Samson lasted marginally longer (1.8 balls per dismissal) than Phase 1. However, his range of strokes had improved so much that he struck at a whopping 146 – a substantial improvement from the 119 between 2013 and 2016. He was taking more risks, finding the boundary more often, scoring at a breakneck pace.

One must remember that 2019 and 2020 were among Rajasthan’s worst seasons: they finished seventh and eighth out of eight teams. They were not losing because of Samson but despite Samson.

When Samson was appointed captain in 2021, he underwent a distinct change in his approach. Rajasthan had done poorly twice in a row. The lower middle order consisted of a string of batters who could bowl or bowlers who could bat: Shivam Dube, Riyan Parag, Rahul Tewatia, Mahipal Lomror, Chris Morris, Shreyas Gopal…

Samson had to abandon his earlier approach. He took fewer risks, as a result of which his strike rate dipped to 137. However, this also meant that he lasted nine balls per innings longer than in Phase 2, which meant that the vulnerable lower middle order came into action nine balls later.

Thus, in 2021, captain Samson adjusted his playing style to suit the demands of the team. Rajasthan’s short-term damage control had come at the cost of Samson’s unabashed hitting skills that would change the course of a match in no time.

Rajasthan had resorted to playing defensive cricket. In the process of utilising Samson as an anchor, they could not utilise one of their two most outrageous hitters: between 2017 and 2020, Samson and Jos Buttler were among the fastest scorers in the IPL.

Rajasthan’s team management took some major calls in 2022. While retaining Buttler and Yashasvi Jaiswal, they invested in another belligerent hitter, Shimron Hetmyer. But the really curious pick was Devdutt Padikkal, whose specialty is batting in the Powerplay.

On Tuesday night, Rajasthan deployed Jaiswal, Buttler, and Samson in the top three, pushing Padikkal to the unfamiliar No. 4 position. The strategy was clear. The top three, along with Hetmyer at five, would go after the bowling whenever possible. Padikkal’s role would be similar to the one Samson adopted in 2021.

At the same time, Rajasthan’s lower middle order continues to remain a worry. Being the only batter who can bowl a bit perhaps makes Parag an automatic choice at six, while Nathan Coulter-Nile and Ravichandran Ashwin probably bat a place higher than they should in T20 cricket, at Nos. 7 and 8.

There will, thus, be a temptation for Samson to reprise his 2021 self by digging deep. The explosive version, while more rewarding, may expose the frailties of the lower middle order. The season will tell which approach turns out to be more fruitful for the franchise.

As for the man, it is unfortunate that despite being one of the three most explosive batters in the country over a four-year span, Samson is yet to become a regular for India in T20Is, something that should change if he and Rajasthan help each other succeed over the course of the season.

Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor at CricketNews and co-author of Sachin and Azhar at Cape Town.

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