From Michael Phelps to Mike Tyson, UAE sports journalists often have the pleasure of interviewing some true icons of world sport as they pass through the UAE for various events and appearances. But 2017 has been unique in that the best stories have actually come from within the emirates. This is surely a sign that the country’s investment in world class facilities and human capital is starting to pay off dividends at the highest levels in sport, and that big names attracted to these shores to inspire the next generation have done their bit. What the four home-grown heroes below can do now though is perhaps even bigger, proving to their peers what can be achieved on the world stage even if you start out locally.
UAE stars storm to world attention
Chirag Suri – IPL call up
The 22-year-old Dubai-based former GEMS Modern Academy student became the first cricketer from the UAE to be selected by an Indian Premier League (IPL) team when he was bought by Gujarat Lions for Rs1 million (Dh57,000) in February.
Coach Brad Hodge had spotted the batsman at an informal training session in Dubai during the Masters Champions League last year and remembered him in his selection as one of Gujarat’s ‘emerging player’ picks, for those aged 23-years and under.
The move saw the Delhi native, who has lived in Dubai since he was five, jettisoned from being on the periphery of the UAE senior team after having impressed at Under-19 level, to suddenly brushing shoulders in the dressing room with the likes of India’s Suresh Raina and Ravindra Jadeja, West Indies’ Dwayne Bravo and New Zealand’s Brendan McCullum. Not bad for someone who had only watched the IPL from the terraces as a fan when it came to Dubai four years ago.
The Lions finished second from bottom in the eight-team IPL standings this year and Suri never made an appearance but the move has forced more selectors to stand up and take notice of what the UAE has to offer. Suri has since gone on to make his first class debut for the UAE against Namibia in the Intercontinental Cup this month. It remains to be seen if his IPL call-up will be repeated next season either by himself or one of his UAE teammates.
Rayhan Thomas – Nine in a row
This Dubai-born-and-bred 17-year-old, whose parents are originally from Kerala, India, made international headlines when he equalled the world record for the most number of birdies in a row at the Dubai Creek Open.
The former St. Mary’s School student shot a course-record equalling 61 in the Mena Tour event with straight reds from two to 10, matching Mark Calcavecchia’s effort set at the Canadian Open in 2009.
Thomas had earlier become only the second UAE-based amateur to make the cut at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic in February, since Matthew Turner in 2009.
He qualified for a special invite to that European Tour event thanks to winning last year’s Mena Tour amateur Order of Merit, after also becoming the first amateur to win a Mena Tour event at last year’s Dubai Creek Open.
Thomas finished above the likes of 14-time Major winner Tiger Woods in the Desert Classic and if it wasn’t for the fact he was an amateur — because only professionals can claim prize-money — he would have won Dh25,700 for finishing tied for 60th. That would have been enough to pay his school fees for an entire year. He’s now 31st in the amateur world rankings — the highest ranked Indian — and is on his way to play in next week’s inaugural Junior President’s Cup, where he’ll represent Trevor Immelman’s international side against America, in a match play contest in New Jersey, between 24 of the world’s best players aged 19 or under.
Ed Jones – Rookie of the Year
From humble beginnings starting off in karts at Jebel Ali, this Dubai-born-and-raised 22-year-old Briton achieved the unthinkable this season going on to lift the Indy Car Rookie of the Year award last week, following a shock podium in the legendary Indy 500 at Indianapolis in May, where he finished ahead of two-time F1 world champion Fernando Alonso.
The former Dubai College student, who has six UAE junior karting titles to his name, and still races under the UAE flag, received the best newcomer’s prize at this week’s season-ender in Sonoma, California, but he had actually already confirmed the award with two races to spare.
Along with Formula One, Indy Car is motorsport’s pinnacle, but it’s arguably harder and more dangerous due to closer racing and greater track variation. Jones, who won the IndyLights series last season and the European F3 Open series in 2013, recorded five top 10 finishes this season, including a podium from a third-place finish in the Indy 500, to come 14th in the overall series — the highest position of any newcomer this season.
The Indy 500 is up there with F1’s Monaco Grand Prix and the Le Mans 24 Hour as motorsport’s three greatest events. The challenge of winning all three is dubbed the Triple Crown and only one man — Graham Hill — has done it. Dale Coyne Racing’s Jones is hoping to have another crack at winning the Indy 500 next year, after which, with a few more successful seasons in Indy Car under his belt, he might be giving Hill a run for his record.
Sam Sunderland – Dakar winner
Not only was this 28-year-old cross-country rally-bike rider of Team Red Bull KTM the first UAE-based winner in any category of the Dakar Rally in January, but he was also the gruelling event’s first ever British winner.
Sunderland only took up the sport when he moved to Dubai from England in 2008 when he was 19.
He bounced back from a serious crash last year, which left one leg longer than the other, to win the legendary 12-stage 8,782-km race from Paraguay to Argentina via Bolivia in 36 hours, six minutes and 22 seconds — 32 minutes ahead of his nearest rival.
It was only his third attempt at the title having withdrawn due to mechanical problems in 2012 and 2014, and now he has won it in his first completion.
So tough is the Dakar Rally, said to be one of sport’s most dangerous events, with 28 deaths since its 1979 inception (and most of them motorcyclists), that winners instantly write themselves into sporting folklore.
The race was originally held from Paris to Dakar, hence the name, but moved to South America in 2009 due to security fears in North Africa. The average rate of completion is only 50 per cent.
So much can go wrong, given the stark and changeable difference in climate, altitude and terrain, as well as fatigue from long hours and the high chance of engine failure or falls that not even Sunderland can be sure if he can win it again, but he’ll give it his best shot though.