No other player, arguably, in the Indian Premier League has had a relationship with his franchise that’s as strong, as emotional, as Mahendra Singh Dhoni had with Chennai Super Kings. The city’s cricket crowd, who’re stereotyped as ‘knowledgeable’, loves this former Train Ticket Examiner from Ranchi than their own accomplished and talented cricketers – of the past and the present. No other player they have found more charismatic, more endearing than Dhoni. In him, they found their captain, their thala. And, the former captain, too, has, on several occasions, acknowledged his liking for the city, the people and the team.
He’d posted this when the BCCI welcomed CSK back into the IPL after their two-year ban ended in July:
When the IPL governing council, after Wednesday’s meeting, cleared the decks for him to rejoin his beloved team, the fans received the news as a seven-year-old would a double-scooped chocolate caramel cone ice-cream. One in Coimbatore, amidst his busy textile business dealings, tweeted and re-tweeted news and memes and opinions about the possible return of his team’s leader. One in a software company in Chennai, immediately after lunching with her team, kept jumping at the prospect of watching her favourite cricketer at Chepauk. Another one’s in the midst of a job-hunt but he’s sure about watching the team’s first home game.
There’s also Saravanan, who wonders, “Well... how do I say that?”, when asked about Dhoni’s potential return. “It’s like being in love and unable to describe my feelings. For these two lines of news, we’d been waiting for two years.”
You might not recognise Saravanan’s everyday look. But, on most match days involving Dhoni, he’s a popular figure. He’s that moustached bulky man, sporting a jet-black Malinga-wig, with his body painted in CSK’s bright yellow and bearing Dhoni’s name, jersey number, CSK’s name and insignia.
“Something happened within me (after hearing the news) without my knowledge. It’s like that feeling you get after finishing the national anthem.”
Saravanan might sound like he’s exaggerating. But one really can’t say. For he’s someone who, despite his relatives calling him “mad”, spends five hours painting his body to support his cricketing idol. His one-year-old daughter, Diya, was named by Dhoni, during one of the few meetings Saravanan’s had with the former captain. Asked what they spoke, he says, “Nothing much. I don’t know English or Hindi.” Asked how he, then, managed to communicate, he chuckles over the phone, “With eyes and signs.”
The last two IPLs, he went for a few matches involving the Rising Pune Supergiant and Gujarat Lions – sporting the same CSK yellow – but the experience didn’t delight Saravanan as much as a CSK match in Chepauk does.
Then, there’s Prabhu, the textile businessman from Coimbatore. He’s 34, married, has two kids aged five and 10. But he makes time to travel to Chennai and sometimes other places to root for his team and their leader.
Unlike a fanatic, he acknowledges that the team had to face the two-year ban after the misdeeds of “some people involved with the team.”
But for the team’s return, he waited and is excited.
“They say when you miss something, you’ll like it more. Though the team’s always been like a family, when it comes back, the bond will be stronger.”
But what if Dhoni doesn’t return? “Well,” Prabhu says after a pause, “I guess (Suresh) Raina can lead the team then. They might also pick (Ravichandran) Ashwin.” There’s a little pause again. “But without Dhoni, there’ll be a big vacuum,” he says.
Like Saravanan, Prabhu and many others, Sneha, a 24-year-old software professional from Chennai, is a member of the team’s registered fan-group – Chennai Super Kings Fan Club. For her, it’s a dream to see “Mahi and Raina back in Chennai.”
So, knowing now that the dream would transpire, she jumped and clapped in office. Her co-workers who know her well wouldn’t have minded, for she’s been a religious fan of the team since she was 14: she even went to the temples of Chennai to request the gods for the return of “Mahi and CSK.”
A fan of Rahul Dravid as a youngster, Sneha doesn’t remember how she became a Dhoni fan. But she’s been one since his long-haired days in 2006. So, watching the last two editions of the IPL, for her, was hard – she’d do it wearing a CSK jersey, feeling bad that Dhoni wasn’t wearing it.
Raghavan, a 23-year-old, felt the same way in the last two years. “Yeah. No matches in Chepauk. No crowd. No whistles. No flag-waving. No yells of ‘Mahi, Mahi’. I really missed that. This time, I am already geared up for the first home game. I will go and scream my guts out.”
Prabhu’s prepared for the day when “MS will unexpectedly will hang up his boots.” Till then, he and his fellow-fans will watch and savour the big hits from Dhoni’s bat, his animated gestures from behind the wicket, his stoic face and his motto – “Results don’t matter. What matters is you give your best and enjoy the game.” – that he often repeats – all of these while wearing that bright yellow No. 7 jersey.