Sanju Samson's exclusion from India's T20 World Cup Squad reflects poorly on Indian selectors
Despite his abundant talent and strong IPL performances for Royals, Sanju Samson won't be boarding the flight to Australia.
"His back-foot play is superb, some of the shots you must have seen during the IPL, the pick-up pull, the cut shots, standing and delivering over bowler's head."
"Those kinds of shots are not easy to play and I believe when we go to Australia, you need those kinds of shot-making abilities and Sanju Samson does have it in him. I just hope that he utilises his potential to the maximum."
For those unaware, that was Rohit Sharma on Sanju Samson prior to the T20I series against Sri Lanka in March. It isn't that Rohit spoke without conviction or truth to his words, for Samson is undoubtedly a strong backfoot player with a range envy of lesser talents. Coming from Rohit himself, it was, in fact, the highest praise Samson could've received on his prowess off the backfoot.
But the Indian captain's words haven't matched the deeds of the management and the selectors, with him also playing an influential voice in decision-making. Since Rohit's moment of effusive praise on Samson's suitability to Australian conditions for the T20 World Cup, the batter has featured in only six T20Is for India. Each sporadic, spanned over three different series, in all of which - versus Sri Lanka, Ireland and West Indies - the team rested Virat Kohli or had KL Rahul injured, effectively a second-string batting unit.
Batting five times for India in T20Is this year, Samson boasts of a strike-rate of 158.40 with an average of 44.75 for his 179 runs. Yet those are the only innings he has played in a calendar year where Rohit's men have played 29 T20Is in preparations for the Australian World Cup.
If Rohit so firmly believes in Sanju Samson's capability for those conditions, why hasn't he been given more game time? If the Indian skipper stands in faith of his backfoot game versus pace, why isn't he even in the reserves for the marquee trip Down Under? This is a big miss-match, reflective of a puzzling tactical mistake.
What's with India mishandling Sanju Samson?
It may seem unfair to target the Rohit-Dravid management for mishandling Sanju Samson, for that has been a theme prevalent throughout his career for India. The player has featured in only 16 T20Is despite making his debut way back in 2015. When he returned to the side in early 2020 after five long years, Samson was given one series at the top and the other in the middle to play the difficult aggressor's role, and yet was dropped for the next assignment.
With what specific intention was Samson brought back in the scheme of things and why was he discarded so quick remain one of many mysteries unresolved from the Shastri-Kohli era. Under Dravid, India have managed to establish specific roles with place assurance for almost all their players. But Samson's T20I career stands untouched to the Dravid impact.
When a player gets tasked with the aggressor's job in the middle-order in T20 cricket, he requires a team management that offers him all the trust, communication and backing. While Rishabh Pant stands today as a failure in a similar role in T20Is despite India showing him the faith and assurance over the years, it doesn't weaken the case for the same treatment to be accorded to Samson, arguably the more talented of the two players.
When Samson has got that role clarity and backing over a large sample of games in the IPL, he has managed to assert his presence and dominated attacks. Accused of inconsistency among the traditionalists, Samson has made his runs at SR of 144.62 while averaging a healthy 32.30 since his return to Rajasthan Royals (RR) side back in IPL 2018. Against all seamers in the given timeframe, Samson has recorded a SR just shy of 148 while retaining an average past 30.
The pandemic years have seen Samson only sharpen his skill and elevate his impact as a middle-overs aggressor. Since the beginning of 2020, he has batted 33 times for Royals in overs 7-15 and maintained a strike-rate just short of 150 at a healthy and acceptable average of 32.93 versus fast-bowling. Put him up for a spin test, and Samson's strike-rate takes only a marginal beating to 143.4 in this period, coinciding with an upsurge in his batting average to 35.5.
On the same metric, over the past three editions of the IPL, Shreyas Iyer has a spin SR of 117.9 between overs 7 to 15 with an average of 28.4. Iyer's numbers take no encouraging upward curve when his middle-overs performance versus pace gets accounted: he averages 26.9 and strikes at 128. Iyer's below-average showing against seamers gets highlighted often, but his poor spin numbers also dispel the argument that he is cricketer of rich pedigree against the tweakers.
Iyer's decent-looking T20I record - avg 33.19; SR 136.65 - is swelled mainly out of his performances against Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Take away matches against those two opponents, and his numbers take a drastic downward curve: avg 26.04; SR 126 with only 3 scores of fifty or more over 34 matches, including 137 runs at 19.57 with a SR of 119.13 versus West Indies, one of the weakest contemporary bowling line-ups.
Iyer plays a different role in the IPL and T20Is to what Samson does for Royals and India. But with the base idea of maximising their stay in the middle, Samson couldn't be any stronger of the two middle-order options, with a big gulf in range against pace and spin and the ability to succeed in Australian conditions, something Rohit put his nod of approval on.
With an ageing top-order up their sleeves, Samson is a middle-order plug more likely to bear India the desired results at No.4-5 if Suryakumar Yadav is injured than Iyer needing to walk in as a replacement in overs 7-15. Why is Sanju Samson not even part of the reserves for India then? Is Iyer even the right choice?
The lack of favours to the right-hander, or to Prithvi Shaw - a player of affluence as a powerplay aggressor in the IPL, is reflective of the mindset that the selectors have still persisted with for T20s.
While Dravid and Rohit seem in sync with the format's nitty-gritties, the selectors have failed to recognise the format as a unique sport, where roles with the bat have to be specialised beyond the norm for different stages with one common intention: to maximise each of the 120 balls available.
Once there, Chetan Sharma & company would realise: if Sanju Samson doesn't make this T20I squad, who does?