In the press conference ahead of the T20I series against Sri Lanka on Wednesday, Rohit Sharma was asked about Sanju Samson. The India captain was effusive in his praise, reminding everyone of the exceptional skills the keeper-bat possesses. He used the word ‘talent’ thrice and it all seemed quite fitting.

“That guy has got talent, man,” said Rohit about Samson. “Whenever we see him bat in the IPL and all that, he’s produced innings where everyone goes over the moon watching it.

“He’s got the skillset to succeed, now that is the whole point about this sport. Lot of people have skillset, have talent. How you utilise them is the most critical part. And I think it is up to Sanju now, understand how he wants to utilise it and maximise.”

Rohit’s words for Samson brought about a sense of deja vu. There are two points that instantly come to mind when one thinks of Samson: rare talent and unrealised potential. And this was precisely the impression most people had of Rohit for quite some time in the initial stages of his career.

While Rohit’s hard work and determination to be a top cricketer can’t be denied, a thing that worked in his favour was the immense belief the team management had in him. It is well known that the likes of Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Ravi Shastri wouldn’t budge when it came to backing him.

“I thought if I can’t get the best out of him [Rohit] as a batter then I am a failure as a coach because there is too much talent there,” Shastri had told Star Sports only recently after his tenure as head coach ended, speaking about his Test career.

Rohit was 26 in 2013 when he truly started to repay the faith shown in him. He became one of the best white-ball batters in world cricket gradually, owned a spot in the Test XI eventually, and is India’s captain across formats as of today.

Stars aligning?

Fans of Indian cricket will hope that Samson, who is 27 now, has a similar turnaround in store for him… where like Rohit, he too goes on to live up to his potential.

“As a team management, we see a lot of potential and lot of talent, and we see a lot of match-winning abilities in that individual,” continued Rohit about Samson. “I hope that we give him that confidence when gets to play for us, whenever he gets an opportunity, I hope he understands that.”

The timing of Rohit’s passionate pitch for Samson makes things interesting too. India recently swept West Indies in a T20 series, and the middle order played a key role in each of the three wins. Suryakumar Yadav, Rishabh Pant and Venkatesh Iyer were starting to seem like long-term candidates for the middle order but in Samson, who last played for India in July 2021, they have more competition.

The series against Sri Lanka offers a great opportunity for Samson. With Virat Kohli and Rishabh Pant rested and Suryakumar ruled out late due to injury, a couple of spots in the middle order have opened up. India have six specialist batters in the squad and Samson might just get to play an entire series on his return to the squad.

Consistency key

Samson’s sparkling strokeplay, as Rohit pointed out, has caught people’s attention for a long time. What is also promising is that in the last couple of years he has found some consistency, which is something he struggled with in the past.

Becoming captain of Rajasthan Royals in the Indian Premier League has perhaps played a part in him batting more responsibly. He scored 375 runs in IPL 2020 and 484 runs in IPL 2021. In the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy this season, he got 227 runs at an average of 75.66.

But performing for RR and Kerala is one thing. International cricket brings with it another level of pressure and challenges. India have plenty of batting options in white-ball cricket at the moment and for Samson to break through and cement his place, he’ll need to bat better than he ever has. And do it for an extended period of time.

In the press conference on Wednesday, Rohit also stressed upon one of Samson’s key attributes. With the next T20 World Cup scheduled to be played in Australia later this year, the skipper suggested that Samson’s strong back-foot play could be an advantage for the Indian team.

“He’s definitely in consideration (for the World Cup), that is why he is part of this team,” said Rohit. “His back foot play is superb, some of the shots you must have seen during IPL, the pick-up pull... the cut shots... standing and delivering over the bowler’s head... those kind of shots are not easy to play.

“I believe when you go to Australia you need that kind of shot-making ability. And Samson does definitely have it in him. I just wish him the best and hope he utilises the potential to the maximum.”

That’s what it comes down to now. We have seen how a captain’s faith can do wonders for a player, Rohit himself is a prime example of that. Will Samson make the most of his opportunity, if he gets it, too? Rohit has thrown down the gauntlet, it will be interesting to see how Samson responds.