"You know the feeling of the first person when he landed on the moon? I am feeling the same way right now."
The excitement in Chirag Suri's voice is palpable after he became the first UAE player to be a part of the Indian Premier League when Gujarat Lions bought him for Rs 10 lakh at the auction.
Chirag may be a relatively unknown name in the wider cricketing world but in the UAE, the 22-year-old is quite a popular figure. He's even called UAE's Virat Kohli back home.
He is Kohli-lite: his teammates think he bats like Kohli; he is similarly expressive on the field, and hails from Delhi, to complete the comparisons. The 22-year-old even admits to idolising the Indian captain and desires deeply to emulate him.
"I love Virat Kohli, I really...really love Virat Kohli," Chirag tells Firstpost.
"Everybody calls me UAE's Virat Kohli because of the way I bat. I emulate him a bit so maybe that's why. My friends, my teammates, coaches, they all think that the way I play is a bit like Virat Kohli," Chirag adds.
The similarities were noticed by his mates one day when he drove beautifully through cover a few times in a practice session and the notion of him being Kohli-esque has remained ever since.
"He is my role model. Maybe I try to copy him a bit here and there," Chirag says.
Born in Punjabi bagh in Delhi, Chirag's love affair with cricket started when his father enrolled him in an academy at the age of six. Soon after in 2001, his family moved to Dubai for his father's construction business but that did not prevent him from pursuing his dream. Chirag continued his cricket in Dubai and has had a steady rise through the ranks.
At the age of 15, Chirag got selected in the UAE U-19 team to play Asian associates tournaments in Thailand and Malaysia. He was then the highest run-getter for UAE, and fourth-highest overall, in the tri-series featuring England and Pakistan where he reveled in his new role as an opener. A gritty knock of 70 against England U-19 earned him a maiden call-up to the senior squad for the 2015 World Cup qualifier. He then played against the likes of Sanju Samson, Kuldeep Yadav and Deepak Hooda in the U-19 Asia Cup. The U-19 World Cup followed. It was a massive learning curve in a short span of time. And playing against strong sides instilled confidence.
"You get better by playing against good teams. We had hosted the World Cup and a lot of the big countries. From a young age I haven't just played with the associates but top international teams as well, be it India, Pakistan, England or South Africa. Kagiso Rabada was in the tournament as well and he went for 5 crore (in the IPL auction). So from a young age I have had a good exposure," says Chirag.
In 2014, the first two weeks of IPL 7 were shifted to UAE because of the Lok Sabha elections and that proved to be the turning point in Chirag's career. He caught the eye of franchise scouts with impressive performances in practice matches, against Rajasthan Royals and Mumbai Indians. A knock of 70-odd off 40 balls against RR and a couple of 40s against MI made the big names take notice of the youngster.
"The practice games against the IPL sides were a big boost. It was the first time I played against international cricketers - top notch ones. That's when my abilities got really tested and I realised that I could do it. I just had to work on my game a bit more and be a bit more consistent. More than getting noticed it was about self confidence. Those innings gave me a lot of self confidence and self belief for sure," Chirag says.
The Masters Champions League (MCL) also played a part in bringing him to the limelight.
"Brad Hodge was in the UAE, he saw me play and a lot of other players as well during the Masters Champions League. Because in the MCL there were people who were also coaches and stuff in the IPL. Virender Sehwag was there along with some others. It was good that I got an opportunity to play in front of them. Hodge is the head coach of Gujarat Lions, he did see me play and obviously it makes an impact," Chirag added.
Chirag expected that he might get a call to register in the auction in 2015 and 2016 but it didn't happen. Finally, this year, a couple of franchises asked the UAE cricket board to enroll the 22-year-old in the 2017 auction.
Former UAE coach Aaqib Javed was aware of Chirag's talents and had prophesied that one day he will surely play in the IPL. Current coach Owais Shah too has played a crucial role in Chirag's career so far.
"Aaqib Javed has been great. Three years ago he told me, 'you will play the IPL'. He knew it. He was always confident and told me to believe in myself," Chirag says.
"Owais Shah has done a lot of good work with me. Spending day in, day out, especially working on my approach towards batting in the powerplay overs. He's really given me a lot of time," he adds.
Finally the D-day arrived and there were a lot of nerves during the auction. But soon the emotion turned into pure joy. "We were sitting on the edge of our seats since the morning, yaar, me, my mother and father," Chirag says. “When it came through (Lions bought me), we were very emotional. We've been trying to be a part of the IPL for a couple of years now but finally with the grace of god, everything got through. I couldn't be happier. It's a great opportunity; it's a great platform, specially being the first person from the UAE in the competition, opening a lot of doors for the associate nations. Good to see them getting the recognition. Honestly, I'm very, very happy," Chirag adds.
An attacking top-order batsman, Chirag is a thinking cricketer and hopes he can further improve his batting in the powerplay by learning from the likes of Brendon McCullum, Dwayne Smith, Jason Roy and Suresh Raina.
"I like to play attacking cricket. I am not a defensive batsman, I like to score runs quickly. When it comes off it looks good, when it doesn't….. it doesn't (laughs)," Chirag says.
Throughout the interaction, Chirag's excitement never subsided. IPL is a good chance to earn big bucks but it isn't about money for Chirag. It's much more than that.
"For me it's wasn't about the money, it was just about the experience. When that Lions' bid came through, we were just happy, I didn't care about another bid. I was just very happy to be the part of IPL. Playing under Suresh Raina and all these players, I couldn't have asked for anything better," Chirag beams.
Chirag is happy to be back home where he first started his cricket.
"I would love to come back to India. It's always a great feeling. It's one of the best places to play cricket in the world," Chirag says.
And what about the comparisons with Kohli?
"I don't think that I am even one tenth as good as him but that's what they call me. I wish I was one tenth as good. And I wish I had got one tenth of his money. But yeah, it's fine (Laughs)," Chirag says.
On 18 February, 2017, Chirag turned 22. And he couldn't have asked for a better birthday gift.
"Three days ago it was my birthday, I didn't celebrate but I am going to celebrate today," said the elated Chirag as the dreams of a bigger future beckoned.