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MX News Update 2024

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Kerala’s own cult hero is different and it shows: Republic World

Sanju Samson’s ODI ton | Image: Star Sports

April 8, 2008. Sanju Samson, then a skinny 14-year-old, curled up on the bed in his hotel room, watched Brendon McCullum of Kolkata Knight Riders hit 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 reframed his career dream from wanting to be a civil servant to entering the elite world of a top cricketer.

“Sanju always thinks back to that day, which gave him the dream to one day reach that league of top players,” said former Kerala player Raiphi Vincent Gomez, also a close friend of the wicketkeeper-batsman.

But just having a dream won’t get anyone to the top of their profession, especially in sports.

Sanju then also had immense determination to follow his chosen path.

Biju George, fielding coach of the former Indian women’s cricket team and the Kerala player’s first mentor, saw the brightly flickering flame in Sanju.

“Rain or shine Sanju and his brother Saly will be at the nets at the Medical College grounds in Thiruvananthapuram. One day it was raining heavily here, and I thought Sanju would not come for nets from his house in Vizhinjam, almost 25 kilometers from the center.

“But he got there on time. He had his (cricket) kit with him in which he also put his school uniform so he could go to school after training. Even at that age he had the next step,” George said.

Maybe that discipline came from his family. Viswanath, his father, was a footballer in the Delhi Police for almost twenty years and firmly supported his son’s ambitions.

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

“His father is a big inspiration for him even when I first met him during his junior cricket days. He used to come and watch Sanju’s matches,” Gomez said.

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

Make no mistake, Sanju is a modern sportsman through and through: he is active on social media, has close ties with Malayalam film stars and politicians, and lends his face to launch a number of products.

However, the effect of fame has not rubbed off on him, a quality that George believes has made him endearing to all sections of Kerala’s discerning society.

“Malayalees have this inherent nature, they don’t like people who brag – be it their knowledge, wealth or fame. Sanju has remained humble even today and that immediately connects him with the people of the state,” he said.

A look at Sanju’s X account will confirm that comment. A world traveler, Sanju’s location reads ‘Keralam’ and a silhouette of Vizhinjam harbor is the profile picture.

‘Look, Kerala has produced some top athletes – PT Usha, Sreesanth etc. Look, I’m not pointing fingers at them, but sometimes the Malayalees don’t like the way they behave in public, the tone of their talk etc .

‘But Sanju is different. He still has the same 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 doesn’t have the aura of a star. He is the person everyone loves to have as a son or brother. You know he has kept the image of ‘Nammude Sanju’ (our Sanju),” he explained.

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 in his hometown Thrissur. Sanju is so rooted in Thiruvananthapuram and Kerala despite climbing the ranks. The state likes its heroes to stay local and Sanju fits in perfectly there at,” he said. Rajesh R Nair, a marketing advertising professional.

‘The big brother’

Sanju may have emerged as an affable cult hero in the socio-cultural sphere of Kerala, but to his teammates, the 29-year-old is a brotherly figure.

“Sanju chettan (elder brother) is always approachable. Often he will be away on national duties or some IPL commitments, but he is just a phone call away.

“If he doesn’t play a match, he will call one of us later to know the details. He never misses the team’s schedule,” said Kerala opener Rohan Kunnummel.

George underlined the passion Sanju has for state cricket.

“We spoke for a few minutes after his selection for 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 said more children in the state will take up cricket if the team achieves some success at the national level,” he said.

But perhaps several young people have already decided to follow Sanju, just as he did in that hotel room sixteen years ago.