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The Sanju Samson journey: Kerala's own cult hero

Source: PTI
May 09, 2024 17:03 IST
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IMAGE: RR skipper Sanju Samson, who is enjoying a strong run in the ongoing IPL edition, is set to play in the upcoming edition of the T20 World Cup. Photograph: BCCI

Sanju Samson, then a skinny 14-year-old, curled on the bed in his hotel room, watched Kolkata Knight Riders' Brendon McCullum hammering a 73-ball 158 against Royal Challengers Bengaluru in the first-ever IPL match.

That drizzly evening in Kottayam, a town in central Kerala, changed his heart. Forever.

Sanju reshuffled his career dream, from wanting to become a civil servant to entering the elite world of a top-flight cricketer.


"Sanju always recollects that day, which gave him the dream of reaching that league of top players one day," said former Kerala player Raiphi Vincent Gomez, also a close friend of the wicketkeeper batter.

But merely having a dream will not take anyone to the top of their profession, more so in sports.

Sanju then had oodles of determination too to walk down his chosen path.

Biju George, the former India women's cricket team's fielding coach and the early mentor of the Kerala player, saw that brightly flickering flame inside Sanju.

"Rain or sunshine Sanju and his brother Saly will be at nets at the Medical College ground in Thiruvananthapuram. It was raining heavily one day here, and I thought Sanju would not come for nets from his home at Vizhinjam, nearly 25 kilometres from the centre.

"But he was there on time. He carried his (cricket) kit in which he also stuffed his school uniform, so that he could go to school after training. Even at that age, he had next level resolve," said George.

Perhaps, that discipline came from his family. Viswanath, his father, was a football player with Delhi Police for nearly two decades and firmly supported his son's aspirations.

He would arrange nets for Sanju and his brother with the Delhi Police team, and they often played against cricketers much older than them.

"His father is a great source of inspiration for him, even when I first met him during his junior cricket days. He would come to watch Sanju's matches without fail," said Gomez.

But that upbringing in a police colony at GTB Nagar in North Delhi also gave Sanju a grounded mind.

Make no mistake, Sanju is every inch a modern-day sportsperson – he is active on social media spaces, has close rapport with Malayalam film stars and politicians and lends his face to market a number of products.

However, the effect of fame has not seeped inside his skin, a trait George said has made him endearing to all layers of Kerala's discerning society.

"Malayalees have this inherent nature, they don't like people who show off – whether it is their knowledge or wealth or fame. Sanju till this day has remained humble and that connects him instantly with the people of the state," he said.

A glance at Sanju's X account will validate that remark. A globe-trotting sportsperson, Sanju's location reads 'Keralam' and a silhouetted Vizhinjam port is the profile picture.

"See, Kerala has produced some top-class athletes – PT Usha, Sreesanth etc. Listen, I am not pointing fingers at them, but, at times, Malayalees do not like the way in which they carry themselves in public, the tone of their talk etc.

"But Sanju is different. He still has the same set of friends – Nicholas, who is now his manager, or Rahul Raghav – from his early days. He still visits the local shops in his shorts and chappals.

"He does not have the air of a star. He is that person who everyone loves to have at their house as a son or a brother. You know he retained that 'Nammude Sanju' (our Sanju) image," he elaborated.

Perhaps, only footballer IM Vijayan has had that effect on fans in the state.

"Vijayan was a superstar in his playing days but remained rooted to his home town -- Thrissur. Sanju is so rooted to Thiruvananthapuram and Kerala despite climbing the ranks. The state loves its heroes to remain local and Sanju is a perfect fit," said Rajesh R Nair, a marketing-advertising professional.

'The big brother' 

Sanju might have grown into an affable cult hero in the socio-cultural sphere of Kerala but for his teammates, the 29-year-old is a brotherly figure.

"Sanju chettan (elder brother) is always approachable. Many times, he will be away with national duty or some IPL commitments, but he is a phone call away.

"If he is not playing a match, he will call one of us later to know the details. He never misses the team's schedule," said Rohan Kunnummel, the Kerala opener.

George underscored that passion Sanju has for state cricket.

"We spoke a few minutes after his selection to the T20 World Cup. But he was more interested in talking about the need for Kerala to win at least one trophy in the upcoming domestic season.

"He was saying that more children will take up cricket in the state if the team gets some success at the national level," he said.

But several youngsters might already have decided to follow Sanju, just like he did in that hotel room 16 years ago.

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