It is around 4:30 PM, and the mercurial rise is heavily taking a toll, as the crowd geared up in numbers to see their beloved. For the first time in 1426 days, they had the chance to meet their Thala in his full flesh, right here in Chennai.
Until then, the crazy faithful had made the trip across to Pune, and Mumbai, and some even packed their bags for a long travel to Dubai, all in the hope to catch MS Dhoni for the last time. Thala though is quite notorious.
Every year seems to be his last but then he wheels away to pull off another. He’s 41 now. The crowd couldn’t care less about the numbers, they are here for the homecoming, and they are all decked up in various styles, various fonts in yellow with one big commonality: Dhoni and a 7.
Dhoni is more than a player; For some, he is captain cool, for some he is their #Thala, for some he’s the ghost, and for someone like Lakshmi, he’s her biggest source of livelihood. If not for games in Chepauk, how will she sell Dhoni jerseys? If there are no sales from these three months, she will have to find avenues to fill her family’s stomach and hope.
Seldom does someone have such a rippling effect on a city. If the crowd is donning a cloth in an attempt to be Dhoni, there is Thala himself prepping his team up for the occasion. Chepauk isn’t for the faint-hearted.
The first thing a fan does after nearly four years of absence is run across the stands like a lunatic, vlogging the entire thing. Last four years, technology has had quite an effect on people but then it is the age-old whistle that brought the roof down together. The crowd then seemingly spots someone in proximity, dressed in yellow.
Once they identified that it was Robin Uthappa and Suresh Raina, the crowd couldn’t care less about the DJ shouting his lungs off. “Heyyy Chinna Thala, inga paaru (look here),” was the constant scream and Raina had no choice but to acknowledge every bit of the Chennai faithful.
For 26-year-old Ruturaj Gaikwad, there’s hardly ever been so much pressure. He’s talented, he dismantles bowling units. Even then, when he walked out for simple catch practice, you could see there were lots of nerves there. He had never previously played at the Chepauk. He’s only ever heard the folklore.
But now, he has experienced it, and he probably will remember it for a lifetime. When he was timing the ball sweetly, the crowd roared, at their loudest thus far in the night. The whistles were deafening but Gaikwad’s timing was such that even the crowd took a break to hear the sound of the bat.
Some in the crowd had, at that point, already declared him a genius. And, he was just that — a genius.
Devon Conway has already experienced what it is to be a CSK player, during his first year while travelling around in Maharashtra but when he saw the first time what the aura of this Chepauk faithful was, he was rather taken aback.
It was around just 35,000 but if you ask this 35,000 to go toe-to-toe with the crowd at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), they would take the challenge head-on.
Just before Moeen Ali’s dismissal, the big screen just showed a glimpse of the dressing room. In unison, the crowd believed that it was MS Dhoni, and started screaming their throat out, so much so you could hear the shriek. But alas, it was Dhoni’s (apparent) doppelgänger, Ambati Rayudu. Immediately, the crowd burst into laughter, all together.
Shivam Dube was on 5 off 10 deliveries. You could almost sense the frustration, right through the stands and through Dube’s nose. The crowd were yelling, “Dei adi da, Dube (Hit it Dube)” as another ball flew past his lid. Yash Thakur then pitched it up, and that was enough for the crowd to go “Dube, Dube” and in the next three balls he faced, the southpaw’s score read: four, six, six.
Lucknow were Dube'd.
“Dhoni, Dhoni, Dhoni,” started the chants. Once again, the crowd was fooled. People had come for Thala dharisanam but had to settle for a Rayudu carnage. When Ben Stokes was dismissed, they yet again thought it was him. But it was Ravindra Jadeja. Only one over was left, could they see their Thala?
Like the crowd, the DJ too had anticipated the pulse of the crowd. It was important to keep them on their feet. So, he casually whipped out or carefully thought of song, “Once Upon a time,” from the movie Vikram. It was timed to perfection.
It was almost like the DJ and the crowd were in sync. Perfect sync. And then, the Ghost walked out to bat. Mark Wood had just casually pocketed Jadeja but the biggest fish was yet to be fried: Dhoni.
The 41-year-old padded up, crossed the boundary cushion and looked up. There was a pause. At that point, the crowd went ballistic.
The placards had turned into confetti and the roar had turned into a screech.
It was the familiar deafening that earned Chennai its plaudits. You couldn’t even hear the DJ go, 'the next batter is MS Dhoni.'
When Dhoni casually slotted one in his first ball over the third man for a six, you could hardly hear the noise from the bat. All you could hear was ‘Dhoni, Dhoni, Dhoni’ mixed with a bit of ‘Thala, Thala, Thala’ in screeches.
Dhoni always has been in the limelight, but for the first time, he was playing second fiddle, to the crowd. The crowd wanted another six and he responded, only this time even longer, a 100-m six, and some in the crowd had almost collapsed. Screeches turned into squeals, and Dhoni was merely obliging to the crowd.
Some had travelled 6-7 hours to see Dhoni in his flesh, some took a couple of flights and Dhoni acknowledged that in his own sweet style. It was a casual nandri from the Thala.
136/5, it was anyone’s game. If Lucknow took off like a Lamborghini Gallardo, CSK’s spin unit came in like a proper traffic cop. The game was in proper Dhoni territory. Chennai have never been the team to win it with ease. The crowd knew that and had preserved their energy and were anxious watching their team motor through.
Ravindra Jadeja was introduced into the attack. There were murmurs in the crowd, “Pooran spin ah adipaane (Pooran hits spin well),” and the others just trusted Dhoni. Except the knowledgeable crowd were right, Pooran smacked Jadeja for two sixes, including a reverse hit that flew across Chepauk.
Only for the second time in the night had the faithful reserved applause for the opposition — one for Krunal Pandya, after his stupendous catch, and the other now for Pooran. He was threatening to take the game away.
Then came the move from Thala, like he has done in the past, bringing on Tushar Deshpande. In just six deliveries, the crowd went from ‘Yen Thala (Why Thala?)’ to ‘En Thala (My Thala)’ as Deshpande removed Pooran. You could see Dhoni applauding Deshpande, and then later, Rajvardhan Hangargekar. The crowd joined in, cheering Deshpande every time he bowled.
Deshpande then obliged, inducing a top-edge that needed some athletics from the 41-year-old Dhoni, with the ball swirling around in the air. But Dhoni never misses it, even when he is 41.
CSK’s innings, 19.3: Dhoni smacks for a 100m six
LSG’s innings, 19.3: Dhoni catches a swirler.
That’s all the fans cared about. They got their Thala dharisanam (Glimpse of Thala).
Once upon a time, there lived a ghost, he
was is still known to be a killer and feared the most. As the fans walked out, there was a group still hanging out, with the placard, “I’m just here hoping for another ‘Definitely not’ Thala”.
And as there were murmurs of Dhoni’s retirement, one quickly walked up to me and said, 'did you see Dhoni’s fitness, what do you think?', making me feel like the journalist from yesteryear. He’s 41.
There might be just one Thala but on Monday, there were at least 30,000 more Dhonis that took Chennai over the line.
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