On the morning after, it is impossible not to replay over and over Sanju Samson’s flick off his hip for a six in the 19th over against Punjab Kings on Monday night in Mumbai.
The Rajasthan Royals captain was playing an innings of class that we have to come to associate with him, especially in the early stages of an IPL season. But it was not just a typical Samson innings. It started out as a struggle. He rode his luck. Punjab’s catching on the night played no minor part. Samson even admitted that he had to take his time, rotate strike when he could – that is usually not his style. Having done all that, having reached a century (his third in the IPL), having taken Royals so close in the run-chase after they had lost the wickets of Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler early, he gave us a moment of sheer quality that should not be easily forgotten.
Apart from being a contender already for the shot of the tournament, it took the equation from 20 off 9 balls to 14 off 8 balls. At that point, it felt like Royals were the favourites. But a few minutes later, with Arshdeep Singh starting the final over as well as he could have hoped for with two runs from the first three balls, the pressure was back on Royals. Then, Samson hit his seventh six of the night.
Five needed off two balls. The metaphoric pendulum swung one way then the other.
The penultimate ball of the match would prove to be a talking point. Samson crunched one to wide long off (worth pointing out that was great field placement from Punjab) and denied Chris Morris the single. The most expensive signing in the history of the IPL, recruited for his all-round skills, was denied the chance to be on strike for the last ball with four runs required. The South African did not seem pleased, he kept looking in the direction of his captain but, from what we could see on the television screens, Samson did not return the glances. He walked away to square leg, put his head down, got ready for the final ball of the innings.
The 26-year-old from Kerala then lofted the ball over cover, when even the commentator’s first reaction was to think he nailed it... that it was heading for a six, Samson’s eighth and most important of the night. Even Samson said he thought it was a six. So many millions watching would have thought the same. But the laws of physics had other plans. Perhaps, it was that drag in the night sky. Perhaps, the point of contact and the bat turning ever so slightly. Either way, the arc of the ball proved perfect for Deepak Hooda, the other hero of the night, to complete the catch as the brilliant Arshdeep celebrated.
“It was the right decision. If anybody had to hit a boundary, it had to be Sanju,” Brian Lara told Star Sports at the end of the match. “If he went back for a second run then there was a chance he could be run out. He did the right thing, no doubts about it in my mind. Just did not connect with the shot properly but standing here (in the studio), I swear I thought he hit out of the park. I would not point fingers at him for denying that run off the penultimate ball.”
There should, in an ideal world, be no complaints with Samson turning that single down and backing himself to hit a six for a win. That was elite confidence. Morris was batting on 2 off 4 at the other end. It was sensational game awareness from Samson to take that call in a split second, and he almost pulled it off too.
“I think Sanju backed himself to get the job done and he nearly did,” Royals team director Kumar Sangakkara said at the post-match press conference.
“He was five or six yards short of hitting the last ball for a six and sometimes when you know you’re hitting the ball well and you’re in form and you believe that you can do it, you’ve got to take that responsibility. And it was really encouraging to see Sanju do that.
“We can always talk about a missed single here or there but the crucial thing for me is the players’ belief in attitude and commitment and they know what their strengths are. And Sanju took it upon himself to finish that game and he just fell a few yards short. That happens, but the next time I’ll believe he’ll hit it that 10 yards further to win us the game,” the former Sri Lankan captain added.
It is not often an innings like the one Samson played comes in a losing cause. It was a stunning combination of stroke-making, game awareness, and – most importantly – leadership. But, he was not just denying the single because he was the captain. Samson was evidently doing it because he wanted to take control of the situation, because he believed he could win it. This was Samson flexing his belief, his self-confidence. There’s a subtle difference.
In an interview with ESPNCricinfo before the tournament, Samson had said: “While you’re batting, you are just blank, you are just trusting yourself and you are just watching the ball. Every ball demands a different kind of treatment. Being a captain, if you ask me if is there no responsibility in my batting, I have been responsible [as a batter even without captaincy]. The only intent which I bat with is to make my team win, so that’s what I need to do each and every time, whether I am captain or not.”
Indeed, if you cast your mind back to the sensational Rahul Tewatia night in IPL 2020 — another Rajasthan vs Punjab epic — Samson played a knock that doesn’t get the limelight because of what happened later in the run-chase. When Tewatia was struggling in the earlier phase, Samson denied him a single in Glenn Maxwell’s over. The required rate was creeping up (over 16) and Samson had hit two sixes already. He wanted to maximise the output in an over where he thought the match-up was right for him. After refusing a single, he scored nine runs off the remaining three balls to make it a 21-run over, including a six.
That’s just how Sanju Samson approaches the game. He fell agonisingly short at Wankhede Stadium against Punjab Kings but he hit all the right notes to get his team that close. He might have been lost for words at the end of it all, but it was an innings that deserves to be celebrated as one of the tournament’s all-time epics. It was heartbreaking, certainly, but it was also heroic.
Watch highlights of Sanju Samson’s innings here.
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