In September 1995, the Kerala under-25 team performed a near miracle by defeating a star-studded Tamil Nadu side in a limited overs match at Manjeri in Malappuram.
The mood in Kerala cricketing circles was distinctly upbeat as this victory had come only a few months after the senior side had qualified for the knock-out phase of the Ranji Trophy championship for the first time ever.
During a discussion with a group of former cricketers and experts on the game after the win at Manjeri, the ubiquitous question in the mind of all the fans in the state was 'When would a Kerala player get to wear the India cap? '
"If the national selectors are fair, in another couple of years," came the reply from one former player.
"But it can only be a bowler so long as we continue to play on matting wickets. We will be able to produce a batsman capable of donning national colours only a decade after we have sufficient number of turf wickets in the state."
Looking back, one can realise how prescient these words were.
In late 2001, Tinu Yohannan, an opening bowler, became the first cricketer from Kerala to play for the country. He was followed by S Sreesanth in 2005.
Meanwhile, the Kerala Cricket Association decided in 2001 to have turf wickets in each district.
And, as predicted by the aforementioned former cricketer in 1995, it has taken more than a decade for the next player from Kerala, this time a batsman, to reach the doorsteps of the national squad.
Sanju Samson first hit the headlines in 2011 with a string of scores that he made in the Cooch Behar U-19 national championship.
This earned him a place in India's U-19 team that took part in the Asia Cup held at Kuala Lumpur in 2012.
A string of low scores in that tournament caused a setback and he did not get a berth in the side for the ICC U-19 World Cup held in Australia the same year.
However, he did not let the disappointment get the better of him and scored two centuries for Kerala in the Ranji Trophy championship in the 2012-13 season, including one against Himachal Pradesh, in conditions that helped seam bowling. This earned him a place during the auction of players prior to the start of Indian Premier League (IPL) in 2013, where he was picked up by Rajasthan Royals.
It would not be an exaggeration to state that Samson adapted to the pressures of playing in the IPL with finesse.
He showed no sign of nerves when he went in to bat in a tense situation in his debut match against Kings XI Punjab. Showing remarkable self assurance, he anchored the chase and guided his side to a victory.
He followed this up with his maiden half-century against Delhi Daredevils (63 runs off 41 balls) and finished the championship with the crown of the best young batsman.
His ability to keep wickets was a bonus as it gave the team management more options to ensure better balance in the side. At this juncture, it appeared that it would not be long before he received the call to the national side.
Samson was chosen to be part of the India 'A' side that toured Australia in 2014, where he performed creditably.
This, in turn, led to selection to the national squad for T20 matches during the series against England in the same year.
He made his international debut in T20 format during the tour of Zimbabwe in 2015.
He went into bat when India were struggling at 69 for five wickets in nine overs, chasing Zimbabwe's score of 145 runs.
He added 36 runs with Stuart Binny in six overs to steady the innings and was ideally placed to launch an assault during the last overs. However, this was not to be as he lost his wicket in the 18th over after scoring a mere 19 off 24 balls, only to see India finish 10 runs behind.
Samson’s form with the bat hit a trough during the next season. There were the occasional fifties and the brief cameos that showcased his potential, but the big knock that would propel him to the next higher level proved to be elusive.
His performances in Ranji Trophy matches also went down by several notches and the real nadir came when the Kerala Cricket Association slapped charges of indiscipline on him. At that juncture, it appeared that Samson’s career was on a distinct nosedive and fear loomed large that he might not survive the quirky undercurrents of domestic cricket circuit.
The 2017 edition of the IPL saw a revival in the fortunes of Samson. Playing for Delhi Daredevils, he hit his first century, against Rising Pune Supergiant, and ended the championship with 386 runs to his credit, at a strike rate of 141.39.
This welcome return to form continued during the 2017-18 domestic season, where he scored 627 runs in Ranji Trophy matches, with one double century to his credit.
It was evident that he had learnt from his mistakes and was making a determined effort to get back into the national reckoning.
He also wisely chose not to keep wickets during the longer formats of the game as he found that the strain brought on by being a full-time stumper was affecting his batting.
Samson has been a revelation in IPL 2018, where he has literally been on fire almost every time he has stepped on to the crease.
He started with knocks of 49 off 42 balls against Sunrisers Hyderabad and 37 off 22 balls against Delhi Daredevils.
But the innings that turned out to be the game-changer in his career came against Royal Challengers Bangalore.
Walking out to bat after the fall of the first wicket, he blazed his way to an unbeaten 92 merely off 45 balls against an attack that included Washington Sundar, Yuzvendra Chahal, Umesh Yadav and Chris Woakes. He was in such superb nick that Shane Warne and Michael Vaughan tweeted, calling him the rising star in the Indian cricketing firmament and Ab de Villiers too showered praises. Virat Kohli, whose bowling attack had to bear the brunt of Samson’s assault, described the innings as brilliant. Samson himself was modest when he met the press after the match saying that he was happy with the way things were going.
Time running out
That brings one to the crucial question as to where does he go from here? Samson has been playing IPL since 2013 and had been on the probables' list of national selectors since 2014. He would turn 24 this November, which means that he should make his entry into international cricket in the next 1-2 years, failing which he runs the risk of being seen by the selectors as someone who is too old to invest in.
Hence, it is highly imperative that he breaks into the national side at the earliest. Already he is behind Hardik Pandya, Karun Nair, Kuldeep Yadav, his contemporaries in age-limit tournaments, who have made it to the highest level.
It is obvious that Samson is primarily a batsman who can also perform the job of a wicketkeeper.
His rivals for a place in the squad who possess similar skill sets are Rishabh Pant and Ishan Kishan, both of whom are younger to him by four years and more.
While Pant holds the edge by virtue of being more consistent with the bat in domestic circuit as well as having played more T20I matches, Kishan has the advantage of being an opening batsman.
Dinesh Karthik, the veteran of many a battle, is also around to give these youngsters a run for their money as he brings with him a wealth of experience and a never-say-die spirit that has seen him sustain himself on the fringes of the national squad for so long.
Samson would have to outperform the others during the current IPL and the domestic season that follows, if he is to emerge as the prime contender for a slot in the Indian middle order.
What more should Samson do to get the selectors' nod?
Samson belongs to the crop of new generation cricketers who have realised that the IPL, in addition to making players financially secure, also provides those from traditionally-weaker states with a platform to showcase their talent at the national level.
Critics have hailed Samson’s balance at the crease and the cool temperament.
Though he has performed creditably to remain in the reckoning for a place in the national side, he should show more alacrity in seizing every opportunity to force his way into the squad.
At this stage in his career when his talent, potential and technique have won all-round approval, he needs to show a greater degree of consistency, which would make it difficult for the national selectors to ignore him.
Samson has proved to the cricketing community in India that Kerala can produce top-notch batsmen as well.
Keralites fervently hope that Samson makes it to the squad for the 2019 ICC World Cup on the strength of his performances.
The Keralite factor
India have won the championship only when a person with roots in Kerala has been part of the squad. All cricket lovers in the country would recall the role played by Sreesanth in the victories in 2007 (ICC World T20) and 2011.
And those of my generation would fondly remember that Kapil’s Devils, who lifted the World Cup in 1983, included one Sunil Walson, the left-arm medium-pacer from Delhi who could trace his matriarchal lineage to north Kerala!
To become an integral part of Team India, Samson needs strength and fortitude to tackle myriad challenges.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)
Read more: Vantage Point