The Kerala lad came in at number 7 and scored 19 off 24 balls, including one boundary, before being dismissed by Chris Mpofu. When Sanju was walking back to the pavilion, little would he have known that it would take him five more years before he played another international match in India colours.
But a ‘never-say-die’ attitude drove him forward and the opportunity knocked on his door once again, when he was selected for a three-match T20 series against Bangladesh.
“I made my debut in 2015 against Zimbabwe. Then I got a big space where I spent around four to five seasons playing IPL and playing domestic cricket. I think those times were very important in my career and life,” Sanju told Timesofindia.com in an exclusive interview.
“Those five years have been really important for me. I changed my game accordingly and then I tried to excel. The base has been made in these five years. I think mentally I’ve been very strong and I have realised what type of a person I am and what type of a cricketer I am. I have understood my strengths and weaknesses in these five years. So, I used it to build myself to an international standard where I can play and perform and win matches for the Indian team. So, that’s how I consider these years,” Sanju said.
RELATIONSHIP WITH RISHABH PANT AND INDIA DREAMS
Sanju didn’t get to play a single match in that series against Bangladesh in 2019, as the selectors went with Rishabh Pant, as the first choice wicket-keeper. The cricketer from Kerala sat in the dressing room, cheered for his team, spent time with his captain Virat Kohli and other seniors and team-mates.
The first T20I saw Pant struggle against Bangladesh’s bowling attack. The 22-year-old scored just 27 off 26 balls, didn’t get to bat in the second T20, in which India batted second and then scored just 6 in the final T20I. Though India won the series 2-1, Sanju’s exclusion from the playing XI became the topic of a fierce debate.
Many former cricketers and fans were dismayed that Sanju was only used as someone who ran onto the field with drinks, as opposed to being part of the playing XI, despite earning an India call-up on the back of very good performances in domestic cricket.
The selectors were once again trolled on social media when they dropped Sanju for the limited overs series against the West Indies last year, without giving him a chance against Bangladesh.
The series again saw Pant being considered as the first choice wicket-keeper batsman ahead of Sanju.
Sanju finally got another chance to play in a T20I match against Sri Lanka in Pune in January earlier this year but he managed only 6 runs.
When India toured New Zealand, Sanju was again included in the T20I squad earlier this year, but he failed to grab the opportunity with both hands again. He scored a paltry 8 and 2 in two outings.
But the 25-year-old has never considered Pant as someone he needs to compete with for a spot in the team.
“I think it all depends on the team combination. I never thought about all these lines (competition with Rishabh Pant). As a cricketer when you’re competing or when you’re trying to get into a sport, if you have an eye on other players – I don’t think that’s the way to play your cricket,” Sanju said.
“Rishabh and I started playing for Delhi Daredevils in the IPL and we spent a lot of time together. We are really good friends. He is a talented player. We really enjoyed playing together. I’ve played a lot of innings with him. I remember one match we played for Delhi Daredevils against the Gujarat Lions. We hammered sixes all over the park and chased down 200 plus. I still relish that partnership with Pant,” Sanju told TimesofIndia.com.
“Whenever people talk to me about my competition with Pant, I like to think about me and him playing together. Not just play, we also have a lot of fun together. I think it will be a really good thing – we are known to dominate bowlers and we have done it in the past as well. So, I always look forward to playing with Pant. I don’t consider myself competing with him,” the Kerala star batsman said.
THE MS DHONI IMPACT
Before making his international debut in 2015 against Zimbabwe, Sanju was included in the India squad for a five-match ODI and one-off T20I series on a tour of England.
During the tour, he got the opportunity to meet and talk to Mahendra Singh Dhoni and take tips from the veteran Indian wicket-keeper batsman and former captain.
“I learnt a lot from Mahi bhai. Even if you watch two matches of him playing on the TV, you can learn a lot of things from him. He has been one of the smartest brains in world cricket,” the wicket-keeper batsman told TimesofIndia.com.
“If you see how he (Dhoni) manages his innings, how his temper is, how he changes his batting style as per the situation and formats and lots and lots of things, it is incredible. The one thing I learnt from Mahi bhai is how to be a smart cricketer. He is smart, as well as calm in tough situations. So that’s what I have learned from him,” Sanju signed off.