In 2013, 18-year-old Sanju Samson travelled to Jaipur to try out for the Rajasthan Royals, accompanied by his senior Kerala team-mate and India fast bowler Sreesanth, who was with the Royals then. Among those watching was former India and Royals captain Rahul Dravid, the franchise's head coach at the time.
After the second day of trials, Dravid walked up to Samson and asked him a question that gave the youngster goosebumps. Samson spoke of the incident in 2016. "He came and said, 'Sanju, you have a very special talent and I would really love to make you play in my Rajasthan Royals team. Would you play for us?'" Samson remembered. "If anyone asks which is your favourite day in this career, definitely that's the day, till now."
Samson is now in his second stint at the Royals and has been appointed captain for the 2021 season. In this interview, he talks about evolving from an uncapped player to the team's leader.
How incredible has the journey in the IPL been for you?
It is really amazing. I just recently had a look back at what I am and what I have achieved or whatever I have gone through my journey. And I can never ask for more. I have been very grateful and very blessed for this beautiful career.
When the team management said they were making you captain, were you ready for it?
If you had asked me the question two years ago or if you would have given me this role two years ago, I would have said, no, I need some more time, I'm figuring out my own game. But now I feel that I'm mature enough to handle my own game and handle this role. So I feel that I'm ready to do this.
What about leadership do you think is your strength?
I like to carry everyone with me. I am not the kind of leader who will stand up tall and say that this is what need we need to do, or this is what I want everyone to do. I am very much flexible in understanding people. I understand that people are different, and they have their different mindsets and characters, but at the same time, I need everyone with me. So it's all about understanding where are they coming from and putting a hand around them and saying, "I'm with you" and giving them the confidence which they need.
If you have made it to the IPL team, you don't need to prove anything else. So it's all about giving them that confidence, that trust, and just giving them their space to express themselves - as simple as that.
Kumar Sangakkara [the Royals' team director] recently said you are a natural-born captain. You have been part of the Royals' leadership group for a few years. What are the little things you have learned in that time?
We just had a meeting two days ago and they asked me the same question: what are you bringing on board as a captain? I said that I already have a lot of great leaders around me, so I don't think I need to do much here.
When I came in as a 17- or 18-year-old, I had people like Rahul Dravid, Shane Watson, Steve Smith, Ajinkya Rahane, Paddy Upton, Zubin Bharucha, Manoj Badale [team owner] - almost everyone in this group is a beautiful leader. I have sat quietly and I have observed and I have learned and all those qualities, they reflect on me. RR is the place where I have learned my leadership qualities and it's a lucky thing that it's my time to show those skills to the team.
You have led Kerala and been vice-captain for India in age-group matches. How do you think that is different from leadership in the IPL?
What I feel is the challenge is that normally in a team you have 15 players, but in IPL you have 25 players to manage. Out of those 25, about 11 or 15 can play almost all the matches and the other ten are not playing. So as a captain or as a leader, I would want the whole team management to give importance to those ten players who are not being able to be part of the IPL.
At the Royals you have the likes of Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler, and now Chris Morris. Also, domestic talent like Rahul Tewatia. You already have one-on-one relationships with most of them. Does that gives you an advantage in bringing the best out of them?
Whatever you speak, if you show that in your actions, you don't need to convince a lot of people.
Talking about a lot of great cricketers of the modern era - Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler, Chris Morris, Jofra Archer, David Miller, almost every one of them is [among the] greatest we have [currently in cricket]. I have a decent kind of relationship with them outside the field from the last three to four years. They know me and I know them, so there is not much communication needed. I'm very excited about it.
Would you say one of your strengths is that you do not let emotions dominate your thinking and decision-making?
That is fair to say to a certain point. I am someone who is still trying to master that. It is not easy. It is very easy to say that you should not take decisions on emotions, but I feel that I'm getting much better at it.
Are you a data captain or do you lead by instinct?
You have to be a mixture of both nowadays. Data is very important and we at RR definitely rely a lot on it. Captaincy is something I always believe that you have to go with your gut feeling also at times, so it has to be a mixture of both.
Are you a bowlers' captain?
I have to be. Leading a team in IPL, you have to stand by your bowlers. So I'm definitely a bowlers' captain - I can say that.
What have been your key takeaways from your conversations with Sangakkara?
We have been speaking for the last two to three months. After every chat I feel that I'm a bit more clear towards what I want to achieve as a captain - a lot of clarity and a lot of confidence has been given from Sanga to me. It is really special.
We do have chats on different players or different things happening in and around the team, but the main thing he said he wants me to do is get involved in almost every decision we take. So he wants me to take all those decisions. And he wants me to get better. He said, there is no right or wrong for a captain - if you take a decision, you have to stand by it and that's it. Sometimes if the decision we have taken falls on the right side and the result is coming, then everyone says that it's the right decision, but it is always about making a decision with a lot of conviction.
So was he saying you are the boss of the Royals' ship?
What he was trying to say is, he wants me to be the captain.
There are a lot of different captains who sit back and want other players to take the calls, but I am the type of character who stands up and says that, yes, this is what [decision] we have taken and I stand for it, we have lost games and I take the responsibility. It is all about taking responsibility, that's the only way you can grow as a captain.
What would you say is the strength of your team?
Our strength is our unity. There are not big individuals in our team. We don't rely on individuals. If we look at our past [seasons], we have always had a lot of young, raw Indian match-winners - we proved that last time, too, in [Kartik] Tyagi and Rahul Tewatia. So it is all about relying definitely on your star players, but we also trust our Indian players to win matches.
Cricket-wise which are the areas that you as a captain are going to talk to your team about?
As I said before, it is all about trusting the person - if someone is in doubt or someone has some issues, it is all about giving him confidence and clarity. Keeping it as simple as possible. A captain doesn't actually do much for a player. If the confidence and support is given by the leader, you don't need anything else. As a captain I don't like to talk much. It all about saying as little as possible.
In 2018, immediately after the IPL, you missed out on touring England with India A as you failed a yo-yo test. Recently you posted a picture of yourself after passing a yo-yo test. Can you talk about the period between the two tests in terms of fitness?
I've always been putting a lot of work into my fitness or in my batting. I have always been a very dedicated person. The reason I was failing all the tests, I found out, was the work was not put in the right direction. My game was improving, my cricket was improving, but fitness-wise I was not improving. It was all about finding the right guy to work with.
When you train [on your own] you don't know how to train or what is a smart way to train. So finding the right trainer was a game changer for me. I could see the difference in my fitness level as well.
Who is this person?
We have Rajamani in our team [Royals] as a strength and conditioning coach, a dedicated trainer from Tamil Nadu.
Fitness is playing a huge role in cricket - almost every day you are playing matches, you have to recover and then play another match with the same intensity. Being a leader of this team [Royals], what I have learned from Virat bhai [Kohli] is how he changed the Indian team's fitness culture. I told him that I'm going to do the same here in Rajasthan Royals as you did in Indian cricket. I take up the responsibility to improve the fitness levels of each and every Indian cricketer playing in Rajasthan Royals.
We had a chat much before the season with Royals management. And I had a chat with the CEO and our chairman and I said that we need to definitely improve our fitness standards. A lot of actions have been taken.
Tell us more about the chat with Kohli.
Yeah, I told him that I know that you have made a lot of effort in the last three to four years. The way we came back in each format, playing a tournament after a long IPL and going to Australia and then having [peak] fitness levels and winning those matches, the last Test match [Brisbane] which we won… the credit must go to Virat bhai, the way he has changed the culture. I was very much inspired by his actions and I told him that this is what I'm going to do.
He was happy. He said, "Tujhe toh samajh aa gaya, toh tu kar liyo" [You have understood, so go ahead and do it]. So it was nice. It was after the Australia Test series.
You have spoken about how fitness has helped you with your power-hitting. Can you break that down for us?
It is all about asking yourself: what do you want to achieve? As a cricketer I want to hit maximum number of sixes or I want to improve my strength or I want to improve my power. How can I do that? What type of exercises can I do which will help me do this?
I found out that being lean and being thin is not my style. I want to feel a bit muscular. I want to feel a bit bigger and stronger. So that's how I gained a bit more muscle mass and gained a bit more weight. That has really helped me to score more runs or perform more inside the cricket ground. Being thin and being lean - it feels great, but it didn't help me perform better. For me it is being strong and feeling that power inside me, so that really reflects positively in the cricket ground.
Talking about power, you hit 26 sixes in the 2020 IPL, the second highest, behind Ishan Kishan of the Mumbai Indians. You just love hitting sixes, don't you?
I believe that it comes naturally to me. I don't stand there and say that I'm going to hit a six. I just watch the ball and it comes naturally, so I'm just learning to get better and better at it. You also get out, so that is also what I have accepted. It is okay at times to get out if you are trying risky shots. With time I have matured enough to understand that it is okay to get out, but at the same time I am also working to hit more sixes consistently.
Becoming the captain, does that change your attitude in your batting?
Yeah, that's the most important thing I will be facing this season. Till last time I was a player and I was given a role and I had to do it inside the ground.
What I have [figured out] mentally is, you can't be a batting captain. You're a captain when you are fielding. When you are batting, there are specific roles given to everyone and you just need to do the same role. You don't have to allow captaincy to come into your head while you are batting.
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. 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. It is very important to keep captaincy aside and just focus on your batting while you are batting.
As far your batting is concerned, in the last three IPLs at least, you started off well and then struggled a bit for consistency. Are you confident you will be able to fix that?
I'm getting better at it: till last year it was one match and then a flop, but last year I scored in two matches [in a row] (laughs). Every individual is different. My character is something different and I try to express it through my batting. Scoring runs is not what I do, it happens to me. The shots I play happens to me. If I get too conscious about scoring runs or if I get too conscious about keeping my consistency rate higher, I will be facing more balls, which is not my character.
I can definitely take singles. I can definitely take ones and twos - a 20-ball 25 is not a hard thing for me to do. It is always about sticking to being true to yourself, being true to your game, no matter what people say.
What is your best IPL innings?
One of the best was against Punjab where we chased down around 217-odd , where Rahul [Tewatia] finished off the game. That was special.
Before that, in your first game of the season, you hit 74 off 32 balls against the Chennai Super Kings. Gautam Gambhir said at the time you were the best keeper-batsman in India and that it would be India's loss if you were not picked in the T20 team. You were picked for the T20s in Australia and played three matches. What did that comeback to the Indian team teach you?
Mindset-wise, preparation-wise, execution-wise I did almost everything perfect. The only mistake I made was, the ball I got out - it went straight to the fielder. The learning was to focus on myself and focus on being the best version of myself. It is lot more to do with how mature you have become about understanding this game, what all you need to develop in your game. I am happy about where I am right now.
So is it your personal goal is to become consistent this IPL?
My goal will be to win more matches for my team.