India’s ICC World Cup squad: How and why Sanju Samson lost out to Ishan Kishan for a place in the Indian team

Even before India’s squad for the World Cup was announced, his army of staunch fans stormed the social media platforms, alleging, as usual, bias and favouritism. They knew what was to come. Sanju Samson would not be in the list of 15 men who would represent India in this World Cup. Samson himself has, in public forums, requested them to control their angst, but in their blinding devotion to their idol, they would not heed to even the words of Samson.

In reality, though, Samson himself has squandered the breaks offered to him, and he himself failed to assert and cement his place in the side. For all the wondrous gifts he possesses, he has a cruel knack of not performing when it matters to the team, or suffers the crueler fate of a fellow batsman out-performing him.

His last international knock, against Ireland, was a classic case study. Reaching the middle in the fifth over, the opportunity was ripe for him to make a head-turning knock. He did score 40, off 26 balls, but just when he seemed to shift through gears and compose a knock that could define him, he perished playing a confused short. He was in two minds, whether to cut or dab, and in the end did neither and managed to drag the ball onto the stumps.

That in essence sums up his career —a tale of opportunities wasted, a story of not imposing himself in an ultra-competitive environment, to be always shaded out by fellow aspirants. Oftentimes, a lack of ambition has flickered. Ishan Kishan presents a classic antithesis. The left-handed batsmen might not be as gifted as Samson, might not possess as glittering an array of strokes as Samson’s does, might not be as technically competent as Samson is, but he simply maximised his opportunities. and fortified his case for World Cup selection.

Kishan had to also wait

Both Kishan and Samson made their ODI debuts in the space of five days in Colombo the year before. Samson struck a fluent run-a-ball 46 coming at one drop, in the third over, batting first; but Kishan slapped a 42-ball 59, as an opener chasing 263 in his maiden outing. For all those crying about a lack of a sustained run of matches, Kishan too was not gifted with a string of games straightaway. He had to wait a few months further for his next break in ODIs than Samson. Kishan sat out for the tour of West Indies, wherein Sanju scored only 72 runs in three innings. One of them was a 51-ball 54 chasing 312, wherein he got run out, paving the way for Axar Patel to crack a match-defining 64 off 35 balls.

That has been the plight of Samson, someone else making a bigger impact, someone else composing a more defining knock. That’s exactly what his career has lacked — a defining innings, one that remains imperishable in the memory of both fans and selectors. He is a batsman of enchanting strokes rather than a great scorer of runs. All that sticks in memory is a flurry of gorgeous boundaries, nimble feet, fast hands, twinkling eyes cajoling the ball to gaps without a flex of a muscle. But to please the audience is different to winning games for your team. Even his highest score — a splendid 86 not out off 63 balls against South Africa in Lucknow — ended on a tragic note, with India falling short by nine runs in pursuit of 250.

Just two days later after the Lucknow game, Kishan, his career at semi-crossroads, rattled out an 84-ball 93 to help India chase 282. Of course, he had a dynamic Shreyas Iyer, who helped himself to a hundred, alongside him, but Kishan’s knock was as valuable. This was perhaps the innings that changed the lives of both Kishan and Samson. The latter fell down in the hierarchy; the stocks of Kishan swelled. Two innings later, Kisha would peel 210 off just 131 balls in an incredible show of power-hitting. Not that Samson was bad, but Kishan was simply better. The Kishan-Samson debate was settled then and there. Kishan would continue to be examined, but would pass out with flying colours. Pushed into the middle-order against Pakistan, he compiled arguably his most mature innings against the bite and bark of Pakistan’s trio of pacers.

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In such a backdrop, the only other shard of hope for Samson to seal a World Cup berth was if Iyer and KL Rahul were not to regain fitness in time. It was not to be — Iyer played the first two games in Asia Cup; Rahul is expected to feature in the Super Four. When they are fit, of course, Samson is an afterthought. Iyer averages 45 in 44 ODIs; Rahul aggregates 45 too in 52 innings. At No 5, the average shoots to 53 in 18 games. Samson, of course, averages 55, but across only 12 innings (of which he remained not out in five). The sample size is too small to make a robust comparison.

In their absence, Samson did nothing of note to push his case, to inhabit the consciousness of the selectors. In the two ODIs in West Indies, he made just nine and 51 (three other batsmen outscored him); in the eight T20Is that followed, he eked out only 123 runs, grossly inadequate numbers if you were trying to make a last-gasp dash to cover lost ground. His desperation manifested as reckless shots and clumsy judgement of situations. To shove Rahul out of the side, he needed to show his wares behind the stumps, where he failed to catch the eyes of the selectors. Instead, what springs to mind is the fuming face of Yuzvendra Chahal after Samson spilled a catch of his bowling in Guyana.

This has been the story of his life, he seldom turns up in big moments (IPL 2022 final, and only one fifty-plus score at an average of 21 and strike rate of 116, in seven play-off games), and only to be over-run and over-shadowed by more ambitious and ruthless competitors. It is no bias, favouritism or tough luck, but just that he failed to capitalise his breaks.

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