The lead-up to Chennai Super Kings' homecoming after nearly three years was insane. Several local political parties and fringe groups had threatened to disrupt the match against Kolkata Knight Riders to show solidarity with protests calling for the resolution of the Cauvery water dispute between Tamil Nadu and neighboring state Karnataka. By 5pm, a political group staged protests at nearby Wallajah road, which prompted the police to cordon off several routes leading to MA Chidambaram Stadium.
The beefed-up security and heavy traffic around the ground caused the match officials to arrive late. Later, the toss was delayed by 13 minutes, but the anxiety turned into delight when thala MS Dhoni finally walked out. Not a ball bowled yet, but nearly all the stands were filled up.
Eight overs into the match, though, panic set in when a group of spectators flung a pair of shoes at the edge of the boundary in the vicinity of Ravindra Jadeja and substitute Faf du Plessis. Du Plessis picked up the shoe, smiled at the crowd and tossed it back amid delirious chants of "CSK! CSK! CSK!" The contrasting emotions summed up the night for the CSK faithful.
Familiar chants of "Gumthalakadi gala gala gala ooh aah ooh aah... Asthalakadi gala gala gala ooh aah ooh aah... whistle podu..." had dominated the early exchanges before Andre Russell hushed the crowd with a barrage of sixes.
Russell's brutal 88 not out off 36 balls launched Knight Riders to 202 for 6. The CSK faithful was twitchy. The opposition had three quality spinners in their ranks and there were question marks over Super Kings' batting, despite the stunning heist they pulled off in the season opener in Mumbai.
Shane Watson, however, gave the crowd hope with three successive boundaries in the first over of the chase. Ambati Rayudu then laid into Piyush Chawla and helped the team rattle off 75 runs in the Powerplay. Both the openers then fell in quick succession, but the fans were in no mood to complain. As soon as Rayudu holed out, the MA Chidambaram stadium raised itself to a deafening roar to welcome back the thala.
Dhoni, though, struggled to time the ball but he had the full support of a packed crowd. Every run drew a cheer. Suresh Raina, another local favourite, was struggling with cramps and ultimately dragged a catch to long-on for 14 off 12 balls. At that point, CSK needed two runs a ball, and it was only the 12th over of the chase.
The time was right for a hero to emerge and in came Billings. The England batsman who was once too nervous to ask Dhoni for a selfie was now batting with Dhoni, and having the Chennai crowd grooving to his tunes. His scooped six over fine leg off Russell in the 18th over left everyone in awe, which soon turned into shock when he toe-ended a catch to long-off for 56 off 23 balls.
Eventually, CSK needed 17 off the last over with Jadeja struggling to time the ball, much like Dhoni, and Dwayne Bravo new to the crease. Vinay Kumar then sent down a full toss above the waist and Bravo spliced it over fine leg for a six to ease the nerves. The free-hit ball went for two runs while the next was an off-side wide. The next two balls fetched only two runs, leaving Super Kings needing four runs off two balls. Vinay put one in Jadeja's swinging arc and the batsman finally connected well enough to clear the boundary and secure another thrilling win with one ball to spare.
Agony, ecstasy, hurt, panic, passion and pride: a cocktail of emotions all in one night. As Billings put it in the post-match press conference, such a homecoming was "meant to be".