Young cricketer Sanju V. Samson fields questions about life on and off the crease

Much like a googly confounds the best of batsmen, it’s quite complicated trying to decipher Kerala cricket’s boy wonder Sanju V. Samson. His response to every curveball that you throw at him is studied and courteous, whether it is regarding the India U-19 team’s chances at the upcoming World Cup or his multi-crore retainership deal with the Rajasthan Royals Indian Premier League (IPL) team or even his childhood outings with the bat and the ball in his hometown, Thiruvananthapuram. The right-handed batsman-wicketkeeper’s replies are always to the point, but with enough information to keep scribes happy. His career on the national stage may only be a couple of years old, but what stands out is the fact that Sanju lives up to the name of cricket being a gentleman’s game.

We meet Sanju at the nets at Medical College grounds, where he’s practising his batting technique with his long-time coach, Biju George. After an hour’s practice in the blazing sun, Sanju ambles over to answer a volley of questions. Ten minutes or so into the interview, he glances at the nets, as if to tell you that he needs to get on with his job. “May I please go play now?” You just don’t have the heart to say no, because it’s very hard to resist that doe-eyed, heartfelt plea and because it’s easy enough to understand that the 19-year-old is really good at what he does, even if it is thwacking, with all his skill, one ball after another that Biju keeps throwing at him. “There are two ways to treat cricket. Either you can think of it as a big deal and let it go to your head or keep it simple and think of it as just a game to enjoy. I am a simple guy,” says Sanju, who hails from Vizhinjam.

It’s a lesson that he says he learnt while playing for the Royals, particularly from team captain Rahul Dravid. “For a youngster like me, it’s a great advantage playing and batting with a legend like Dravid sir. Thanks to him I’ve cleared several doubts on how my career should pan out, what I should be focussing on, what I should be avoiding...,” says Sanju. He adds that whenever he sees gentleman Dravid, he asks him questions. “Stuff like, at my age how much importance did he give to cricket? How determined was he, and so on. One of the finest pieces of advice he gave me was that, in cricket, every day cannot be your day. And that’s why your attitude on and off the field counts,” explains Sanju.

In fact, the youngster says that he has a list of some 10-15 such questions that he asks all his cricketing idols, from Shane Watson to A.B. de Villiers (who is his current favourite). “I write down their responses in my diary, which I have been keeping since I started out in IPL in 2012 with Kolkata Knight Riders [in the player’s pool]. I select what I feel is the best and try to follow it,” explains Sanju. Apparently, after each match, whether it’s IPL or domestic cricket, Sanju makes it a point to jot down his observances and then adjusts his play accordingly.

Such determination to succeed requires good discipline too. And Sanju has been very principled about his training, since the age of 12 or so when he started taking cricket seriously, after his father, Samson Viswanath, a constable with the Delhi Police and footballer, quit his job and moved the family back to Kerala. “My father and my mother, Ligy, made that sacrifice because they wanted me and my older brother Saly [also a cricketer] to follow our dreams in cricket. There were no guarantees but we made sure we did our bit by practising as hard as we could. Every day, without fail, we would take the bus all the way from Vizhinjam to practise here with Biju sir. We’d practise from 7 a.m. till 10 a.m. and then from 2.30 p.m. till sundown,” recalls Sanju. Even now, whenever he is in town, the youngster pretty much follows the same routine. Only now, his brother or his father drives him to practice. “I haven’t had the time to learn driving. What if I hit someone…?” he asks. Whatever free time he has off the field, apparently, is spent on his studies.

Really, studies...? “Until class 10 I was not very interested in studies. Then, suddenly, I felt I should study too,” explains Sanju, who studied at St. Joseph’s Higher Secondary School. Ever since then, despite his busy schedule, the youngster has managed to ace his exams, passing each with distinction. His love for studying is so much that even during IPL, once a match or practice is over, Sanju prefers to hit the books! “I catch up on work then. Of late, I’ve also started to read. I like inspirational literature such as the books by Robin Sharma,” he says.

Currently, Sanju is a first year student of English literature at Mar Ivanios College. “I’ve attended only about 14 days of class but I enjoy going to college and the fun of college life. The girls pull my cheeks!” he says, bursting into laughter.

And here we were thinking that he’s too serious for his own good. “That’s a laugh. Ask my friends, I can joke with the best of them. Only, I let loose with my friends and family,” says Sanju, his teeth flashing into another uninhibited smile. “Most of my friends are those who played with me in the junior leagues in Malappuram (where he first started playing). I try to hang out with them whenever possible. We do the stuff that regular youngsters do – play football, cricket, watch movies, talk, hangout by the beach... In fact, all of us, including coach Biju, are just back from an impromptu game of football – my hobby – against a local children’s team that my father coaches. We lost. These days, though, it’s getting increasingly difficult to find a place to go where no one recognises me,” he muses.

By the looks of it, Sanju is all set to have a field day in Indian cricket and, maybe, will even one day lead the team to victory. But ask the youngster if his dreams lie just within the boundaries of cricket and it’s – not surprisingly – a no. “I want to achieve the heights in international and domestic cricket, play for India in whites, and win the World Cup. But my ultimate aim is to become an IPS (Indian Police Service) officer.” With Sanju’s perseverance and doggedness even the sky is no boundary.

MEET THE COACH

Biju, a coach with the Sports Authority of India (SAI), who has been giving free cricket training to enthusiastic youngsters for couple of decades now, groomed Sanju on the crease. “Even when he was 12 years old, Sanju was very focussed. See how he’s gone back to practise? He’ll now be at the nets for another hour. Everybody talks about how focussed, dedicated, humble, and sober Sanju is. But nobody talks about how rooted he is or how absolutely loyal he is. It’s no wonder the Rajasthan Royals retained him. Sanju is a role model not only for young players but for seniors as well,” says Biju, adding that it was cricket statistician S.N. Sudhir Aly who introduced the Samson brothers to him. On his part Sanju considers coach Biju, “as mentor, guide, friend, philosopher, big brother, all rolled into one.” In fact, all of Biju’s charges who’ve made an impact on domestic cricket and international cricket, be it Sachin Baby, P. Prasanth, Prasanth Parameswaran or Raiphy Vincent Gomez, to name a few – seem to consider him as such and most of them are still to be found at the nets. “When I started I used to go around the housing colonies in the city looking for kids to train. At that time, there was just a net. Now around 65 kids train here and we have concrete wicket, ploygrass turf, balls and so on. I couldn’t do it without the support of SAI and the Kerala Cricket Association,” says the 48-year-old, a former University-level player. His only advice to budding cricketers is: “Keep cool, work hard, work smart, stay humble.”

FACT FILE

Sanju’s first-class debut was Kerala vs. Vidarbha at Nagpur in 2011.

He is the youngest to score a half-century in IPL and in Champions League Twenty20.

He won the Man of the Match in only his second match in the IPL (sixth edition). Dravid gifted him a bat on the occasion.

He is the vice-captain of the under-19 Indian cricket team.

Sanju is still an uncapped player. He’s been selected as the one of the 30 probables for team India in the upcoming Twenty20 World Cup.