As the tenth edition of the Indian Premier League is set to get underway in Hyderabad on April 5th, 2017, fans across the nation wait with eager anticipation to familiarize themselves with the skillsets of some of the unknown players who come into the cash-rich league with big reputations in their bags. And unlike the previous editions, this year’s mini-auction saw the franchise owners expand their horizon and raise their paddles not only for the lesser-known local Indian cricketers but also for overseas players from the Associate countries.
As many as three Associate players (players from non-Test playing nations) have made their entry into the biggest T20 league in the world and their participation in the Indian Premier League have only opened the floodgates for development among the non-Test playing countries.
Recently, Cricfit correspondent Ritam Basu had the opportunity to converse with UAE’s Chirag Suri, one of the three Associate cricketers (the others being Afghanistan’s Mohammad Nabi and Rashid Khan) who will be part of IPL 2017. A youngster who grew up revelling in the afterglow of the IPL, Suri was born in Punjabi Bagh in Delhi and later moved to Dubai at the age of six.
A consistent performer in all age-group teams, the twenty two-year old right-handed batsman was roped in by the Gujarat Lions for his base price of INR 10 lakh at the mini auction earlier this year. Suri’s name is believed to have been suggested by the Gujarat Lions coach Brad Hodge after the Australian saw the youngster at informal training sessions during the Masters Champions League last year while plying his trade for the Gemini Arabians.
A die-hard fan of Indian skipper Virat Kohli, Suri in a freewheeling session with our correspondent spoke about a wide variety of topics including his lucrative IPL deal, the role of his family in helping him achieve his dream, the nostalgia which grips him whenever he visits Delhi, why Virat Kohli is his favourite cricketer and his upcoming stint with the Gujarat Lions. The excitement in his voice was quite palpable as he spoke.
Q: The IPL auction took place just a couple of days after your 22nd birthday. Is the contract with the Gujarat Lions your best birthday gift ever?
Suri: Yeah! I didn’t celebrate my birthday until February 20th, and the cake was cut only after I was picked by the Gujarat Lions at the auction. Like you said, it’s (the IPL contract) the best birthday present I’ve ever had in my twenty two years and it was the perfect icing on the cake.
Q: It is known that on the day of the auction, your father arrived home just in time to see your name go under the hammer. Do you think it was predestined that the whole family would gather together and witness the moment of glory?
Suri: You would like to believe in destiny. I got up at 7 am (UAE time) on that day to follow the auction live on television and by the time my number (no. 245) was called in the afternoon, my family and I were completely exhausted. My father made sure he reached home before my name came up and by God’s grace, I was really fortunate to celebrate the occasion in the company of my loved ones.
Q: How did you celebrate your sale at the auction?
Suri: My family and close friends gathered for a small party later that night and they were all very happy for me. Some of them were happier than I was because they know what an IPL contract means to me. It was very satisfying for me personally because I felt I had achieved something that had put smiles on their faces. I have been working very hard over the last couple of years to improve my game and I am ready to toil hard to justify the faith placed in me by the Gujarat Lions.
Q: Was it a bit surprising to see yourself being picked ahead of leading UAE batsmen like Shaiman Anwar and Rohan Mustafa?
Suri: No, it was not surprising at all because I feel I am one of the top cricketers within the under-23 bracket in the UAE. If there’s anything that really perturbs me, it’s the fact that I still haven’t been able to establish myself in the national team, so I want to be more consistent and for that I have trained hard in the nets at the ICC Global Academy in Dubai of late. The next couple of months will surely be a big learning curve for me.
Q: How did you get into cricket?
Suri: When I was four or five years old, my father took me to the academy one day and the whole journey started from there. My father always pushed me to develop a keen interest in cricket and it so happened that I fell in love with the game. I chose to make a career in cricket at the age of sixteen as I was already playing at the under-19 level at that time. The journey so far has been satisfactory; but I’ve had my ups and downs as well.
Q: You moved to Dubai from Delhi when you were just six years old. How many times have you visited Delhi in the intervening period?
Suri: I attended the Modern School, Humayun Road (the same school which has produced alumni like Indian cricketers Gautam Gambhir and Unmukt Chand) when I was in Delhi. I keep visiting Delhi for festivals and I came here last year as well. I’ve lots of friends and relatives in Delhi. I love my uncles and my aunts, and then my grandfather stays here too. The food here is also great (guffaws)!
Q: Would you mind being the Gujarat Lions’ tour guide when your teammates visit Delhi for their first-leg fixture against Delhi Daredevils on May 4?
Suri: Of course! I would love to throw my Gujarat Lions teammates around and we can all saunter through the streets of Delhi. Even if they ever travel to Dubai for a vacation, they are most welcome to come to my house.
Q: Did you look up to any particular cricketer as a role-model?
Suri: I grew up watching Sachin Tendulkar. I think he’s a legend and I just loved the way he used to go all-out and take the attack to the opposition bowlers. Even though the the Indian team had quite a few match-winners in the early 2000s, the way he carried the burden of an entire nation’s expectations on his shoulders and dominated the opposition bowlers in a career spanning over two decades was exemplary. I want to imbibe his discipline and consistency.
Q: You have often attributed your progress to former UAE coaches Aaqib Javed and Owais Shah. What kind of inputs have you received from each of them?
Suri: I started working with Aaqib Javed when I was seventeen or eighteen years old, so he has been supervising me since my under-19 days. In the nascent stages of your career, you benefit more by working on the mental aspects of your game and the biggest lesson Aaqib sir has taught me is to stay positive and shun all negative thoughts. That really enables you to devote all your attention to the game.
I worked with Owais Shah for eight months and he imparted tips on how to build an innings and approach my game. He helped me hone the technical aspects of my batting. Both of them have different approaches in coaching but I have tried to learn all that I could from each of them.
Q: You are not contracted to the Emirates Cricket Board on a full-time basis. Are you eyeing the IPL to cement your place in the national set-up?
Suri: Look, it’s something that is beyond our control since it’s within the purview of the selectors. So I really cannot comment on that. Obviously when I go back to the UAE, I would like to see myself in national colours on a more regular basis but as of now, I am only focusing on the IPL.
Q: At present, you are pursuing a BBA degree at Heriot-Watt University, as well as learning the family marble and granite construction business. Do you plan to foray into business in the future in case cricket doesn’t work out?
Suri: I only want to get on with the game and make a name for myself as of now. The IPL contract has come just at the right time in that respect. I am very young, just twenty two years old and I need to keep improving and keep evolving as a cricketer. My father is a well-known businessman in the UAE and I have always tried to learn the fundamentals of business from him. Business is something I will get into eventually but as far as the present is concerned; my complete focus is on cricket.
Q: How difficult is it for a player to pursue a full-time career in cricket in the UAE?
Suri: It’s quite difficult because majority of the players have day jobs and they all remain very busy during the day. Moreover, UAE doesn’t play the longer format of the game. We indulge in a lot of fifty-over and twenty-over matches back home because as I told you, most of the players remain tied up in their respective offices during the day. As a result, we are left with only three hours in the evening to sweat it out on the cricket field and in those three hours, you could only play a T20 match. Despite all such obstacles, we have plenty of talent coming through the ranks. Players from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan- they all play in our domestic league, which in turn has led to a more competitive environment at the domestic level. You will definitely see more players emerging from the UAE in the near future. I can vouch for that.
Q: Kindly talk us through the state of the first-class structure over there.
Suri: I think there’s still a lot of work to be done in terms of involving more people to play the longest version of the game. Frankly speaking, our first-class structure is not very good at the moment but the shorter formats being more lively and entertaining are a greater source of attraction to the corporate entities. The Emirates Cricket Board though is keen on taking all the necessary steps to promote the longer format among masses. Advancement in ODI cricket also figures high on the agenda of the administrators.
Q: When you first burst onto the scene, you were looked upon as the most promising four-day cricketer in the country. How have you been trying to improve yourself in the longer format of the game?
Suri: When I started my career, I wasn’t well-built in terms of being an athlete, so it was important for me to become technically sound. Today when I look back at it, I realize that it’s essential to have a solid defence. I just hate to throw my wicket away. On the flipside, in T20 cricket you need to get yourself into the game quickly and start playing shots after negotiating the first few deliveries. I have added some new shots to my arsenal and also worked on my strong areas.
Q: You caught the eye of the franchise scouts with your impressive display in practice matches against Rajasthan Royals and Mumbai Indians before the first half of IPL 2014 kicked off in the UAE. Do you think that was the turning point of your career?
Suri: I scored some 70 odd runs against a Rajasthan Royals side which comprised the likes of Tim Southee, Shane Watson, Kevon Cooper and Pravin Tambe. Southee and Watson opened the bowling for RR and I am not sure whether I got too many freebies from them. I met them after the match and they were all praise for me. I also nabbed a nice catch at point. Rahul (Dravid) sir took notice of it and seemed impressed with my effort. In the next two matches against Mumbai Indians, I produced a couple of 40s. It was heartening to perform well before such stalwarts like Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Ricky Ponting and Anil Kumble.
Q: Which is your favourite batting position?
Suri: I normally like to open the batting in a bid to make the most of the field restrictions in the first six overs but I am happy to bat anywhere.
Q: You have been spending a lot of time in the gym I believe. Tell us something about your fitness regime.
Suri: I was never a fit child but over the last few years, I have been training very hard to enhance my fitness level. We all understand the importance of fitness in modern-day cricket. It makes you a better cricketer and in order to be in tune with modern-day cricket, you always have to maintain high standards of fitness. I hit the gym every day for two-three hours and there’s a specific workout plan which I go through. Fitness helps sharpen your fielding skills and also helps you build leg muscles that deliver power to a cricket shot, so it’s good to see the benefits.
Q: Have you been preparing for the IPL any differently?
Suri: It’s important to stay mentally fit for a two-month long tournament like the IPL. I will stick to my basics as I’ve always done. No matter which type of tournament you play in, you must keep your intensity level high. Prior to coming to India, I played for the UAE in a couple of practice matches against Durham and Essex respectively. In the first game I got some 40 odd runs against Paul Collingwood’s Durham and in the following game, I scored some 80 odd runs against Essex. Ravi Bopara was playing that game. I have enjoyed a good run of form of late. That said, IPL is the biggest cricket league in the world, so you have got to stay on your toes all the time.
Q: Have you marked April 18th on your calendar? After all, the Gujarat Lions play their first leg match against the Virat Kohli-led Royal Challengers Bangalore at the Saurashtra Cricket Association Stadium on that day. Are you looking forward to seeing Kohli, your favourite cricketer in action against your own team?
Suri: I have heard that Kohli is likely to get fit before the 18th. Tough luck for us man (laughs)! Jokes apart, I expect to see a good contest between the two teams. RCB is a star-studded team with players like Virat Kohli, Chris Gayle and Shane Watson in their roster. Hence, all eyes on April 18th.
Q: I also read somewhere that you are planning to swap shirts with him….
Suri: Yes, certainly.
Q: Soumyajit Bhattacharya from Kolkata has a question for you. He wants to know which personality trait you think you have in common with the Indian captain.
Suri: First and foremost, we belong to the same part of Delhi (lets out a hearty laugh)! I have been following Kohli since my under-19 days and my journey has been pretty much like that of him- graduating from the under-19 level to the senior side. I was lucky to get some runs against New Zealand and England in the 2014 ICC Under-19 World Cup. I would love to emulate him but to be honest, if I manage to do a fraction of what he has done for the Indian team, I will consider my career worthwhile. I simply love the way he goes about his business; he’s fearless, he’s aggressive and I like to play my cricket the same way.
Q: You met him in 2014 when the IPL had temporarily shifted base to the UAE. Did you speak to him at that time?
Suri: I had a very brief chat with him but I was lucky enough to get a photo with him. It would be a dream come true for me if I get the opportunity to play against him in one of the IPL games.
Q: In the Gujarat Lions dressing room, you will join the likes of Suresh Raina, Brendon McCullum, DJ Bravo, Ravindra Jadeja and Jason Roy. What are your expectations from the forthcoming season of the IPL?
Suri: I have been a huge admirer of our captain Suresh Raina. He has done such wonderful things for India in the shorter formats. Batting at no. 5 or no. 6 is never an easy proposition. As we all know, the middle-order is never an easy place to bat since you are often confronted with pressure cooker situations and to have scored so many runs batting down the order speaks volumes of his character. I will try to observe him closely and learn the subtleties of batsmanship from him. Obviously I would like to get a few matches under my belt but even if I don’t make it to the playing eleven, I should not get demotivated and instead I should look to contribute to the team’s cause in the best possible manner. I am craving to play in front of the Indian spectators. The atmosphere in the stadiums is so electrifying! I am looking forward to my stint with the Gujarat Lions and let’s hope everything turns out well.
Q: Keshav Bansal, the Gujarat Lions owner is also in his youth like you. Has he had any word with you?
Suri: Yeah, he said some nice things about me during his recent trip to Dubai. He called me when he was there and I was very happy to speak to him. I am looking forward to getting to know him personally. He’s only twenty six now and he has already achieved such great entrepreneurial success.
Q: The last question. IPL 2017 could be the last season for the Gujarat Lions. What would be your message to all the Gujarat Lions fans?
Suri: Let’s roar loud this year. I really wish the organizers could retain the two franchises (Gujarat Lions and Rising Pune Supergiant) once the Rajasthan Royals and Chennai Super Kings came back but it would be too early to say so. My message to the fans is to just enjoy the year and keep backing us. Game Mari Che!!
(Watch this space for the rapid fire round)..