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Chennai joins the Sanju Samson fan club

Given the atmosphere at Chepauk, you'd have been forgiven for mistakenly thinking it was a certain other right-hand wicketkeeper-batter taking the field against New Zealand A

Sanju Samson has had a fun week in Chennai  •  PTI

Sanju Samson has had a fun week in Chennai  •  PTI

To associate cricket in Chennai with the crowd turning out at Chepauk isn't new. It has been said many times that Chennai is one of the places in India where cricket crowds - for any match, domestic or international - appreciate a good game irrespective of the teams featuring in it.
On Tuesday, the crowd at MA Chidambaram Stadium erupted for about 30 seconds when a player walked out onto the field. This kind of reception has mostly been reserved for "Thala" MS Dhoni or for "Chinna Thala" Suresh Raina. Or for local boys like R Ashwin. None of them were here today.
Chennai Super Kings' off-season camps create quite a stir as well, but it wasn't that either.
This cheer was for Sanju Samson, who has played several domestic matches in Chennai before but still might not have expected such a warm welcome. For a minute, it felt like the Greenfield International Stadium in Thiruvananthapuram.
Samson has been in the city for almost a week now, as captain of the India A side for the limited-overs series against New Zealand A. If the first one-dayer had 200-odd spectators, today the crowd grew, in both numbers and noise, until roughly 2,000 people were on hand to watch the home side produce a 3-0 sweep.
Mind you, Chennai is still experiencing searing heat with the temperatures touching 35°C during the day, but the fans didn't care. For many, this is the closest they get to experiencing an international. The last game that India played at Chepauk was in February 2021, when they beat England by 317 runs in the second Test. It has been a while, and with both these A sides featuring several players who have already played for their country, people came in good numbers to watch the games, even on weekdays.
And there was an eruption of joy every time Samson walked out to bat against the touring New Zealanders. Every time he dived and stopped a possible boundary, there were whistles. When Samson applauded a player's effort on the field, the crowd clapped with him. When Samson appealed for a wicket, they did too. Clips of the crowd cheering loudly for Samson even went viral on social media platforms last week, after the first one-dayer.
He's always had this connection with fans. Especially with those from Kerala, his home state. According to reports on the local news, Samson's supporters are expected to protest the decision to leave him out of the T20 World Cup squad by showing up at Wednesday's T20I between India and South Africa in Thiruvananthapuram wearing t-shirts with his face on them.
There were clips of fans at the airport shouting "Sanju Sanju" when the Indian team landed on Monday. Suryakumar Yadav was seen showing a picture of Samson on his mobile phone to fans gathered outside the team bus, prompting them to go wild. Ashwin and Yuzvendra Chahal, who play under him at the IPL, also joined the party, posting photos of the crowd, and tagging Samson in them.
Meanwhile, on the field, Samson was starting to feel at home in Chennai. After scores of 29 not out and 37, he raised his 16th List A half-century, an innings that was largely risk-free - and, of course, greatly appreciated. At the end of the game, Samson went up to the two stands that had been opened up to the public and obliged their requests for autographs and pictures. A few New Zealand A players joined in as well, shooting videos of the crowd and taking selfies.
Samson has been the flag-bearer for cricket in Kerala for years now. But to see Chennai embrace this right-hand wicketkeeper-batter in the way they embrace that right-hand wicketkeeper-batter was slightly unexpected. The term "knowledgeable Chennai crowd", synonymous with the fans showing great appreciation even for players who are not their own, has seemingly been doing the rounds ever since that famous India-Pakistan Test back in 1999. A lot has changed in the intervening years. But some things stay the same.

Srinidhi Ramanujam is a sub-editor with ESPNcricinfo