Sanju Samson is only 23, but he's been part of Indian cricket for half a decade. It was in April 2013 that we first saw Samson, a scrawny 18-year old tasked with securing a Rajasthan Royals chase against Kings XI Punjab. He did so in style, playing a match-winning innings on debut, following that up by becoming the youngest batsman to make an IPL fifty, and eventually collecting the award for being the best young player of the season. The spark was unmistakable, and in 2014, Royals backed the 19-year old enough to retain him.
That spark, however, has remained a spark for the best part of five seasons. Samson's often played an innings of genius only to fizzle away as expectations rise. In 2014, Samson scored 74 in the season's last game to help him finish with a respectable average of 26. In the next season, apart from a spectacular 76 against Mumbai Indians, all Samson could muster was an average of 20. He has never averaged over 27 in an IPL season, leaving his potential unfulfilled.
Samson has been on the fringes of India's plans too, playing on and off for India A, and one T20I for India, but not doing enough to take a significant step up. He's seen his team-mates - Hardik Pandya, Karun Nair, Shreyas Iyer and Yuzvendra Chahal to name a few - do it.
Samson's stagnation has also been due to his domestic form. Before the recently concluded 2017-18 season, Samson's most successful year was in 2013-14, when he made over 500 runs. After middling scores for Kerala and India A, and some disciplinary issues, Samson's prospects took a hit. However, his performances this year in domestic cricket and the IPL has changed all that.
Coming into the 2018 IPL, Samson had just had his best domestic season for four years: 627 runs in Kerala's short-lived Ranji Trophy campaign of seven matches, and two fifties in five Vijay Hazare Trophy games. And now he's top scored in two out of three matches for Royals, having returned to the franchise after a stint at Delhi Daredevils. In the other game, Samson made a blazing 37 to help win a rain-hit contest - against Daredevils. The spark is there again, but Samson is now keeping it alight longer.
Samson's unbeaten 92 against Royal Challengers Bangalore on Sunday was another sign that this season might be the one after which he makes a push for a place in India's T20 team. He attacked Sundar, Umesh Yadav and Chris Woakes - all of whom are international bowlers - with proper shots that cleared the boundary regularly - 10 times in all.
Samson was careful not to look too far ahead after his Man-of-the-Match effort led to Royals beating RCB by 19 runs. "I'm feeling good," he said. "But the tournament has just started."
It was the sort of response that showed how far Samson had come since the time he was pulled up by the Kerala board for disappearing midway from a game, or warned for allegedly misbehaving with his team-mates. It showed that Samson was no longer satisfied with the occasional headline performance and that message has also resonated with the man alongside whom Samson played his debut game.
"He's the future for India and we all back him," Royals captain Ajinkya Rahane said after victory in Bengaluru. It came almost five years since Rahane stood on the other end when 18-year-old Samson hit the winning runs in 2013.