The Indian Premier League (IPL), by design, doesn’t quite lend itself to European football-like sports fandom. Allegiances are mostly fluid and the emotional connect with a team, even after 16 long years of the tournament, still lacks intensity. This is perhaps because the show is largely controlled by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), which believes that periodic auctions that lead to the chopping and changing of outfits are essential to maintain competitive balance.
Few venues have designated home and away stands, and fan songs, if any, are still in the realm of imagination. The locations for the marquee play-off matches are decided even before the teams qualify, further reducing the chances of a partisan crowd-building. In fact, after each contest, the most marketed images are those of rival players sharing a good laugh. The overall desire is thus to sell a high-quality entertainment package every evening, and nothing more.
Chennai Super Kings (CSK) and its ultra-passionate support base militate against this idea. If galleries at the iconic Chepauk stadium resemble a sea of yellow, games at neutral venues are not without CSK oases. In Bengaluru, one of India’s most cosmopolitan cities, it can be safely said that CSK has as many fans as Royal Challengers Bangalore. People have internalised this to such an extent that journalists in Bengaluru and Ahmedabad, the two venues where I have covered matches, invariably conclude that CSK fans have outnumbered the locals.
The man who is singularly responsible for such mania is M.S. Dhoni. Ever since the franchise broke the bank at the inaugural 2008 auction to sign him for a then record $1.5 million, Dhoni has occupied the highest position in the CSK totem pole. It doesn’t matter that he is from Ranchi and can speak, at best, a smattering of Tamil. In a region where the sub-nationalist identity, shaped by language, is quite strong, the affection for Dhoni is organic. I have seen many who genuinely believe that Dhoni will be elected unopposed if ever he contests a parliamentary election in Chennai.
This bond was most recently reflected in the way supporters thronged the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad for the IPL final against Gujarat Titans. There is a good chance there were more Tamilians per square metre in Ahmedabad than anywhere outside Tamil Nadu that weekend. The skyrocketing Chennai-Ahmedabad flight ticket fares didn’t prove a dampener, for a few fans I spoke to had flown to Vadodara and then journeyed to watch the match by road. Even when the tie slipped into the reserve day because of torrential rains, most of them stayed back, spending thousands to reschedule their flights and hotel bookings. The reward was watching their Thala (leader) lift his fifth IPL trophy as captain.
Anticipation was also heightened before every match that Dhoni played because there was fear that the legend, soon to be 42, will hang up his boots. This is after all a man who announced his retirement from limited-overs international cricket on Instagram. In what novel way will he draw the curtains now? Back then, CSK’s Chinna Thala (deputy) Suresh Raina followed suit, also retiring on Instagram within minutes of Dhoni. Who was he going to drag along now?
But the manner in which Dhoni indulged his fans, by promising that he would try and come back next season, showcased the high point of the mutual love. “I think it started over here [Ahmedabad] when I was playing the first game [of IPL 2023],” he said, after the title win on Tuesday. “I just walked out and the full house was chanting my name. My eyes filled with [tears]. It was the same thing in Chennai. It will be good to come back and play.” Retired or not, Chennai’s most famous adopted son will live on for eternity.