UAE's IPL boy
Chirag Suri is already feeling the effects of being "the IPL boy". The day after becoming the first UAE player to be recruited to any of cricket's big leagues, he was back in the nets at the ICC Academy in Dubai.
Dougie Brown, the UAE coach, congratulated him on his feat in front of his national team colleagues. His fellow players, Suri says, were "ecstatic" about him signing for Gujarat Lions. But they are gunning for him too.
"There is a bit of extra pressure on me now, even in training," said Suri, a 22-year-old batsman who was born in Delhi and raised in Dubai. "The lads have been joking around, telling me I can't do this or that in the IPL. And it feels really bad whenever I get out now.
"That will make me concentrate more. I think people feel I have always had it in me, but it is all about being consistent. I need to put more of a price on my wicket now."
The realisation has not taken long to dawn on him. Making it onto an IPL roster was quite some achievement, but the hard work starts here. "I'm really enjoying the moment," Suri said. "But I've been back in training, trying to work harder with a goal like this in mind."
Suri watched the IPL auction on TV at home in Dubai from its start until his lot, No. 245, came up. His father, Bobby, had gone to his construction-firm job in Dubai before returning in time to see his son's name go under the hammer. Between those two, and mother Gauri, plenty of tears were shed when he was bought by Lions, for a base price of Rs 10 lakh (approximately US$15,000).
His has been a startling elevation. When Lions play their first matches in the IPL, against Kolkata Knight Riders on April 7 and Sunrisers Hyderabad two days later, UAE will be playing a four-day Intercontinental Cup match against Papua New Guinea in Abu Dhabi. Suri has not thought to ask to be excused from that yet. He does not presume to think he will even be in the UAE team.
He has been on the fringes of the national team since he debuted against Kenya in the World Cup Qualifier in New Zealand in 2014. In the few chances he has had to make himself undroppable, he has missed out.
It is fair to suggest he has jumped the queue when it comes to UAE players reaching the big leagues. Four UAE internationals, for example, have made it into the Pakistan Super League draft list in the past. Shaiman Anwar, UAE's leading batsman and No. 24 in the ICC rankings for T20 batsmen, was on the list ahead of the league's first season in 2016. Rohan Mustafa, Mohammed Naveed and Ahmed Raza did the same this season. None of them were picked, though.
Suri reasons that his chances of making it were enhanced by his youth. He is within the under-23 bracket for emerging players. And now, he says, he hopes he can push the door further ajar for everybody else.
"All the lads were ecstatic for me, giving me their best wishes and support," Suri said. "Shaiman has been really trying to get into the PSL. Hopefully next year he can get through as well. The lads are more confident of getting through now, because Associate players are getting more of a name in the leagues."
There are eight full-time professional players contracted to the Emirates Cricket Board. Suri is not one of them. Alongside playing cricket, he studies for a degree in business management at Heriot Watt University in Dubai, as well as learning the family marble and granite construction business.
Talented players are often lost to the system in the UAE between the ages of 18 to 21, when they travel abroad for study, or enter the workplace. Bobby Suri, though, is encouraging his son to pursue his dream of playing cricket for as long as he can.
"Their parents want them to make their careers somewhere else and not in cricket," Suri Sr. said of the cricketers who fall by the wayside in the UAE. "To be honest, I am a businessman. I have always told Chirag, 'While you keep playing, I will remain young. So keep playing, please, do this for me.' That is all the reward I want: for him to keep playing."
Bobby moved his family to Dubai from his native Delhi in 2003, when he relocated for work. Chirag, who had just started playing cricket when they moved, subsequently went on to represent UAE at all age-group levels, occasionally as captain.
One of his junior coaches was Shahzad Altaf, who played as a bowler for UAE in the 1996 World Cup on the subcontinent, and has since produced a variety of players for the national team via his academy." I was surprised when I heard Chirag got an IPL deal, but it is good for him and hopefully he will perform," Altaf said. "I think he could do something, but that level is very high. I think he could do it, if he gets regular chances."
According to Suri, Aaqib Javed, the former UAE coach, told him four years ago that he would play in the IPL at some point in the future. That was either unbelievable foresight or a conceit designed to boost a player's self-belief ahead of coming challenges.
Back then, Suri was part of a UAE side that was facing matches against the likes of India and Pakistan in the Under-19 Asia Cup, and then in the Under-19 World Cup. India's side had the likes of Sanju Samson - who was already an IPL star - and Sarfaraz Khan. Pakistan had Sami Aslam. South Africa won that World Cup, largely thanks to the excellence of Kagiso Rabada. With pedigree like that in the opposition, Suri and the schoolboys of the UAE team probably needed a pep up.
Aaqib maintains Suri has the talent to impress with Gujarat, though. He thinks his former protégé has a "personality suited to challenges". "It is a good opportunity," said Aaqib, who coached the UAE until last year. "The IPL is a huge thing. It is really encouraging for any UAE player."
Suri understands Aaqib's assessment of his personality traits. "When I get something positive or negative in my life, I don't get fazed by it," he said. "If something happens to me, I don't think about it a lot, I just keep a positive outlook. Things always charge me up, and that is probably what Aaqib meant. If I am seen as the IPL boy, I will take that as a positive."
Paul Radley is a sportswriter with the National. @PaulRadley