Sanju, the batting Samson!

Sanju Samson with coach Biju George.-S. GOPAKUMAR

Sanju Viswanadh Samson is the first batsman from Kerala to be picked for the Indian team. P. K. Ajith Kumar traces the prodigy’s rise.

Till Tinu Yohannan, a tall pace bowler of great potential, took the new ball on a December morning in Mohali 13 winters ago in the opening Test of the 2001-02 series against England, Kerala had not produced an Indian cricketer. The southern State had contributed to the country several outstanding athletes in just about any discipline (Tinu’s father T. C. Yohannan was an Asian record holder in long jump), but not a single one in the country’s favourite sport.

Tinu may have failed to build on a promising Test debut — he had removed both the English openers Mark Butcher and Marcus Trescothick on the first day — but he instilled confidence in the collective psyche of Kerala’s cricketers. That was the time when even a brilliant leg-spinner like K. N. Ananthapadmanabhan, who had taken five wickets in an innings against a touring Pakistani Test side, struggled to get attention from the national selectors.

So Tinu’s feat was a huge inspiration to budding cricketers in Kerala. Not surprisingly, quite a few pace bowlers emerged. “We used to have some really fine pace bowlers at that time,” recalls Tinu. “Some of them had the potential to play for the country. There was Prasanth Chandran, for instance.”

Among those Kerala cricketers who Tinu influenced was S. Sreesanth. In 2005, Sreesanth became the second from the State to play for India. The temperamental swing bowler went on to become one of the best in the world at times, before he was shamed in the IPL spot-fixing scandal.

That was a body blow to Kerala cricket. Backed by an active Kerala Cricket Association that has been building quality grounds and academies right across the State, the sport was still on a strong wicket, in spite of the Sreesanth affair, as it emerged as one of the best limited-overs sides in the country. And the rapid rise of Sandeep Warrier, another pace bowler, was heartening. He had come out of almost nowhere to become Kerala’s spearhead and earn a place in an Indian team for the Emerging Players’ tournament in Singapore.

But, there was this explosive batsman called Sanju Viswanadh Samson whom cricket followers in Kerala had been watching closely, ever since he was picked for the Under-13 squad, for which he smashed 973 runs from five matches in 2008-09. Over the next few years, you could see his name among the top-scorers in most of the matches Kerala’s age-group sides played; at the insistence of his coach Biju George, he also continued to work hard on his wicketkeeping. “Though he wasn’t the most natural of ’keepers, I knew he stood a better chance of making the Indian team, though his batting was exceptional enough,” says the India Under-19 team’s fielding coach. “He has always been willing to work hard.”

SANJU COULD WELL INSPIRE a host of Kerala youngsters.-S. GOPAKUMAR

Hard work did pay off, as he was picked by the Rajasthan Royals. A sparkling 61 off 43 balls against Royal Challengers Bangalore, in only his second match, put him in the limelight last year, as he became the youngest player to score a fifty in the IPL. He continued to impress in cricket’s most glamorous league.

His selection to the India ‘A’ side for the recent Australian tour was therefore hardly surprising. He was the team’s best batsman on the tour. He performed so well that coach Abhay Sharma proclaimed him as the future of Indian cricket. The former wicket-keeper of Delhi may not have imagined that the future he was talking about would arrive so soon, as Sanju was named in Indian team for the limited overs matches in England.

Former Indian wicket-keeper Chandrakant Pandit, who is currently the director of Kerala cricket, says Sanju has got the break at the right time, at the age of 19. “I am glad that the selectors have picked Sanju now, when he is in great form,” he says. “Though his strength is batting, he is a competent enough ’keeper.”

Tinu, who has recently been appointed as Kerala’s bowling coach, recalls the first time he saw Sanju. “He was just 16 then, but he was included in the Kerala Ranji squad after a stunning double hundred (off just 138 balls) he scored in the Vijay Merchant Trophy,” he says. “I had heard about this prodigy who had come to Thiruvananthapuram from Delhi. I remember him scoring a fine fifty in that match we played. He impressed me with perfect timing and the way he cleared the boundary effortlessly.”

Tinu is glad that a batsman from Kerala has finally broken into the Indian squad. “We used to produce only bowlers, but we didn’t have quality batsmen,” he says. “Sanju will motivate several young batsmen now.”