Sanju Samson
India’s Sanju Samson plays a shot during the third One-Day International cricket match against South Africa at Boland Park in Paarl on December 21, 2023. Samson’s maiden international century helped India win the game and the series. Image Credit: AFP

Relief was writ large on Sanju Samson’s face. A century in international cricket, at last. The maiden ton came on Thursday when India defeated South Africa in Paarl to win the third One-day International. After acknowledging the cheers from his teammates, Samson broke into a smile and showed off his biceps. That was odd because it was hardly a power-packed innings.

Blazing strokes, punctuated with towering sixes, are the hallmark of a typical Samson century. He curbed them on Thursday to repair India’s innings in the company of young Tilak Varma. It was a disciplined knock, a hard graft that put India on the road to recovery and a series-clinching win.

Has Samson turned a corner with this knock? Will it become his career-defining ton? The 108 could be the fillip for Samson, who’s considered a batter who comes up short in international cricket. Cameos didn’t do justice to his talent and didn’t endear him to Indian selectors.

How Samson got the inconsistent player tag

For a player of immense talent, Samson’s international appearances have been far and few. In eight years, he’s played only 16 ODIs. Why’s that? In the media and cricket fraternity, Samson has been cast as an inconsistent player. A player who hits the highs in the Indian Premier League only to flounder on the international stage.

That’s more of a perception. A perception built by focusing on his failures and overlooking his success. Consider these stats: In 16 ODIs, the 29-year-old scored 510 runs with an average of 56.66 and boasts a strike rate of around 100. Are these the figures of a failed batsman? There should be something radically wrong in classifying Samson as a mere IPL wonder.

Samson too hasn’t helped his cause with failures in Twenty20 Internationals. But he’s been given a high-risk role to take on the bowlers, which isn’t a recipe for consistency. The result is a poor T20 International record, which critics use to paint the picture of an erratic batter.

The Rajasthan Royals captain’s ODI success has been overshadowed by competing middle-order batters. While they are praised for good knocks, Samson’s flop shows get magnified. His good knocks often don’t attract enough attention as some other batter would have stolen the thunder.

Luck has also not been kind to Samson. The wicketkeeper-batter field is crowded. The supremely gifted Rishabh Pant leads the pack: he’s played some gamechanging knocks in Test cricket. But he too had to surrender his place to Dinesh Karthik in the T20 World Cup in Australia last year.

Then there’s Ishaan Kishan, who has been impressive in his limited international appearances. Pant and Kishan are lefthanders, which is a bonus. Then comes India’s vice-captain KL Rahul, an exciting batter and a competent wicketkeeper. His selection allows India to play an extra batter. 

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With such an abundance of talent jostling for wicketkeeper-batter slot in India’s white-ball cricket, Samson’s credentials are overlooked. He’s not even considered a specialist batter who can open the innings and bat anywhere in the middle order. Suryakumar Yadav got the nod in the ODI World Cup in India recently.

Samson is an exciting talent. No doubt about it. Everyone who’s watched him in the IPL agrees wholeheartedly. Ever since he made his IPL debut for the Rajasthan Royals as an 18-year-old in 2013, the Kerala cricketer has been marked out as an India player. Expectedly, the international debut came in 2015, but more than four years elapsed before his next game in the T20 format.

The ODI journey was more puzzling. After a debut in 2021, his next appearance came only after a year. That’s despite a good record.

What should Samson do now?

Be that as it may. Of late, Samson has been getting more international games. Now, the onus is on him to translate his potential into runs. Samson should take a leaf out of Shubman Gill’s book. The Punjab opening batter’s prolific scoring last year made everyone sit and take notice. Termed a generational talent, Gill is part of the Indian squad in all formats.

Samson has to do just that: score runs at every opportunity. That’s the only way to catch selectors’ eyes and land a regular slot in the India team. The century against South Africa would have given him more self-belief. He should build on that.

His talent is phenomenal. It would be a shame to waste that.