R Ashwin and M Vijay are different characters in quite a few respects. While Ashwin is an extrovert, Vijay opens up only to a select few. Ashwin is a Rajinikanth fan, but Vijay swears by Kamal Haasan. For a long time they represented rival teams in the city's first-division league.
Their paths, however, converge at their mothership: Chennai. Many in the city dote on them - they are currently Chennai's biggest cricketing icons - and they can't love it back enough.
They last played a Test match in Chennai nearly four years ago with contrasting fortunes - Ashwin grabbed 12 wickets whereas Vijay could muster only 16 runs in two innings and was probably one failure away from being dropped. However, when they head to Chepauk on Friday morning, such memories will come a distant second to the emotions that have surrounded them and their city over the last few days.
Chennai has had two horrific Decembers in succession, with Cyclone Vardah ripping through the city, uprooting trees, claiming lives, and dismantling communication and logistics. Vijay and Ashwin have been deeply affected, just as they were during the floods that claimed hundreds of lives last year. This time they have also had to cope with personal bereavement: while it is learnt that the brother of Ashwin's grandfather died during the cyclone, Vijay dedicated his century in Mumbai to a close friend's father who had passed away on the first day of the Test.
Former India wicketkeeper Bharath Reddy, who is in charge of Jolly Rovers - the team that Vijay played for in the TNCA league - says Vijay kept tabs of the situation on the ground in Chennai while he was away. "I am sure he will try to get a hundred and dedicate it to the victims of the cyclone," Reddy says. "While he was away from Chennai, he checked with me to see how people were, and also told me, 'If anybody approaches you for help, let me know. I am willing to help them when this tour finishes.'"
Vijay's love for people, according to Reddy, means he also fancies a career in politics once his playing days are over. "He is 100% [a Chennai boy at heart], that's why he wants to get into politics," Reddy says. "He has been telling me this for the last two years. He is a fun-loving person, he feels safe in this place and he feels like a king also, which undoubtedly he is because he is a Chennai boy."
Former Tamil Nadu batsman R Prasanna, who counts among a handful of Vijay's best friends, recalls a conversation with Vijay sometime in 2008 when he hadn't yet become a part of the IPL. Vijay, according to Prasanna, wanted Chennai to be the first franchise he turned out for. "I still remember that we were discussing this at a tea shop opposite to the stadium after our Ranji Trophy camp. He went on to play for Chennai Super Kings and that proved to be a big break for him."
"Whenever he is out of Chennai, he longs to return to the city as soon as he can and spend time with his friends," Prasanna says. "During the floods last year, he was away in Delhi for the Test match against South Africa, but was anxious about my safety in Chennai. We spoke a week after the floods, and he said he would come home because he hadn't seen my baby daughter till then."
Sai Kumar, a close friend of Ashwin who lives and works in the UK, says Ashwin, too, did his bit during the floods. "During the floods last year, Ashwin wasn't available - I think he and Prithi [Ashwin's wife] were in Delhi for the Test match against South Africa - but he was trying to help in whatever way he could. Although he couldn't be physically present, he was retweeting all the tweets on the flood situation. He even donated notebooks to one of the schools.
"[The cyclone aftermath] is a very tough time, and this is the ground he has grown up playing on, so emotions will definitely run high. Knowing his personality, I am sure he will rock in Chennai."
In 2013, when Ashwin garroted Australia, he said Chepauk had never looked more beautiful. "I was in complete awe, smiling all through. I feel the air talks to me," he said then. "Even if it turns out to be my last Test match, this will remain the happiest moment of my life."
Four years on, Ashwin and Vijay are quite some way from the finishing line, and are in a far better space. "Chennai will turn up in numbers and I am pretty sure about it," Ashwin told bcci.tv. "The only factor will be how easily it is accessible from outside - because the trees have fallen all over the city, the commuting is a bit of a problem. But, if there is any city that will come back to its feet fast, it is Chennai. When my name is announced to bowl or bat, the way the crowd will erupt is something I really look forward to."
And erupt it will, each time Ashwin and Vijay set foot on the ground.