Whenever Sanju is in doubt or needs any advice, Biju is just a phone call away.
“Sanju came to me at the age of 11. And he was with me today afternoon also. He is practicing with me after getting permission from the CM. One of my friends has got a gym. So, he has opened (it) for us and we both do regular exercises there. We do beach running and fielding session on the beaches. Sanju’s father bought him to me at a young age. The one thing I observed in Sanju at an initial age and it is still in him that he just wants to dominate,” Biju told TImesofindia.com in an exclusive interview.
SANJU’S FIRST LOVE – CRICKET
If Sanju is in town, you will see him chatting, going on long drives and running on the St. Andrew’s beach in Kerala, with his mentor Biju. The wicket-keeper batsman often visits the Medical Cricket Ground in Thiruvananthapuram with Biju where he started playing cricket.
Sanju has a number of match-winning IPL knocks and centuries in domestic cricket under his belt, but for Biju the youngster’s knock during an inter-school tournament on a muddy wicket of the Medical Cricket Ground many years ago remains his favourite.
“People remember Sanju for his innings in IPL and Under-19 level. But his one innings will always be on the top of any innings of his career. It was a rainy day in Trivandrum in medical cricket ground where I coach him. It always rains in Kerala. There was a thick mud in the ground and a little grass. The batsmen were struggling to stand on that muddy wicket. It was an inter-school match going on. But this guy (Sanju) was holding himself and was taking the bowlers to the cleaners. I still remember that innings more than any of the innings he has played in his career. He single-handedly won the match for his team,” the coach recalled.
“When he entered the Under-13 stage, he was selected to play a tournament in Bangalore. In the first match, he went and scored a double century. He scored 5 or 6 centuries in the tournament. After every match, he used to call from a landline number and discusses his game. The first thing he used to ask..’Sir, how did I play?’,” Biju said.
“I still remember I asked for a bat from Robin Uthappa. He was a star at that time. I met Robin and told him about Sanju. I told him that Sanju is a good batsman but he doesn’t have a bat. Can you give him a bat? Robin went to Chinnaswamy stadium and gave him the bat personally. Sanju was so happy and called me immediately said ‘Sir, a car came and stopped and Robin Uthappa came out. He gave me a bat. It is heavy and very good’,” he said.
SANJU OR PANT AS DHONI’S SUCCESSOR?
Sanju made his international debut in 2015 in a Twenty20 international match against Zimbabwe. The Kerala lad came in at number 7 and scored 19 off 24 balls, including one boundary, before being dismissed by Chris Mpofu. It took four more years for the youngster to get his next India call-up.
Finally, the opportunity knocked on his door once again, when he was selected for a three-match T20 series against Bangladesh.
However, 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.
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 questions were raised once again when the selectors dropped Sanju for the limited overs series against the West Indies last year, without giving him a chance against Bangladesh.
Sanju finally got another chance to play in a T20I match against Sri Lanka in Pune in January earlier this year but he managed to make 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, scoring just 8 and 2 in his two outings.
“If you ask me as a person who is close to Sanju, I would say he should have got more chances. But if you look at the Indian team’s point of view – why they are giving Rishabh Pant so many chances? First, he is a left-hander, obviously. Second, Indian team strategies. They might have the World Cup in mind, where they might come up against a team which has got quality left-arm spinners or leg spinners, or a left-arm fast bowler, and that time Pant will be useful. This is my opinion. That’s up to the team, captain and coach to take the decision. That the chief selector should decide who is the best suitable to be in the team against an opposition – Pant or Sanju? I don’t think this is coming out deliberately not to give anybody a chance,” Biju told TimesofIndia.com.
“As you go up the hierarchy in the cricketing ladder, so many difficulties come. It is a very difficult process to filter out, which actually suits you, which doesn’t suit you. Sanju is a guy, if you watch all his innings, he’s a guy who relies on timing. He is not a player who will be smashing the ball, he will be timing the ball. That’s what makes Sanju stand a part. If you see his IPL and domestic innings, you will see he times the ball so perfectly. Last season, when he scored a century against Sunrisers Hyderabad, he timed most of the shots through covers. When he came to the Indian side, somebody told him that you have to be hitting the ball. When he started hitting the ball, he started losing his shape,” he said.
“Whenever we met this year, we go on long drives, we do long chats and we decided that his focus should be on holding the shape, timing the ball and hitting it straight, nothing else. And dominate. I am confident that you will see a different Sanju in the coming season. He will dazzle in domestic, IPL as well as international,” the coach further told TimesofIndia.com.
THE RAHUL DRAVID FACTOR
Biju never got a chance to work closely with Indian batting legend Rahul Dravid but he is happy that Sanju got the opportunity to play alongside Dravid.
When Sanju was bought by the Rajasthan Royals IPL franchise in 2013, he got the chance to play under Dravid’s captaincy.
Before signing for Rajasthan Royals, Sanju was part of the Kolkata Knight Riders in 2012, but he didn’t get to play a single game.
In 93 IPL career matches so far, Sanju has scored 2209 runs at an average of 27.61. He also has 10 fifties and 2 centuries under his belt.
“Dravid had a big influence on Sanju. Apart from Dravid, Zubin Barucha has supported him a lot. Sanju became more mature under Dravid. Sanju is a bit introvert. Being introvert in a game like cricket is a little bit difficult. You tend to bottle up things in a certain way otherwise someday it will burst. You need that equilibrium. And Dravid has helped Sanju to find his equilibrium,” the coach said.
“I guarantee he will be a much better cricketer. And just watch him be as he is. He has been so grounded, focussed and rooted now. And I wish and pray that he comes out and establishes himself in the Indian cricket for a long time. He’s working so much on his fitness and he’s getting stronger,” Biju signed off.