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The 'Dhoni emotion' sweeps Chennai ahead of Super Kings' homecoming

CSK will be playing a full season at home for the first time in four years, and the Chepauk faithful know their chances to soak in that thala feeling are running down

Alagappan Muthu and Deivarayan Muthu
MS Dhoni will be back at the helm in Chennai  •  BCCI

MS Dhoni will be back at the helm in Chennai  •  BCCI

He is everywhere right now. He always is, especially in April and May. On billboards which seem to fit nicely with his larger-than-life persona. On the backs of the autos that zip through our streets. Well, on streets (see below) as well. At a plush hotel, near the Marina Beach, where the 12th anniversary of his iconic World Cup-winning six was being celebrated. On murals and stands at Chepauk, which he calls home. An entire city has become a tribute to MS Dhoni. It feels like Chennai knows something that we don't. Or maybe we do and just don't want to say it out loud.
Chennai Super Kings' intra-squad practice match that was thrown open to the public just an hour before the start last week provided a peek into the revelry that Chennai could finally experience this season. Only the C,D and E stands were originally available for the fans, but they got filled up quickly on a weekday and the new stand was also soon taken over by fans.
Dhoni's first public appearance on the field since arriving in the city in early March brought the Super Kings fans to their feet. The locality around Chepauk is the home to Chennai's most popular movie theatres, but on March 27, this was the show that Chennai wanted to see. First day, first show: blockbuster. There will be seven more shows at Chepauk, and the seventh on May 14, against Kolkata Knight Riders, could well be the last one in the city. So, Chennai wants to soak in every bit of its thala (leader).
This will be the first full home season in Chennai in four years and only the second in eight years. You can take Chennai out of Super Kings, but you just can't take the fans out of Super Kings. They've never let their team feel alone and at various neutral venues, even outside of India, the yellow army has outnumbered the other fans.
When Super Kings were forced to move out of Chennai to Pune after playing just one home game in the city in 2018, the yellow army and the team management arranged a chartered train called "Whistle Podu Express" from Chennai to Pune for about 1000 local fans. All the expenses of the fans, including food, accommodation, local transportation, train and match tickets, were apparently borne by the Super Kings management.
Anush Rajasekaran, a die-hard Super Kings fan who runs a restaurant called Mezze in Chennai, travelled on that train just because of one "emotion".
"Even though he [Dhoni] is not from Chennai originally, I feel we've been super quick to adopt him as one of our own," Anush says. "I think these days, people associate Dhoni more with Chennai than Ranchi. It's an emotion that sometimes can't be explained. It's an emotion!
"I've personally travelled to Dubai and literally every city to watch a CSK game - just for Dhoni. In 2018, when there was no matches in Chennai, I was on the CSK train to Pune and travelled quite a bit. And we quickly started calling him thala and it's a big thing. For him to get the title, it's just that he's our leader. Personally, to be honest, none of the clubs across sports give me as much joy as watching a CSK game."
And Dhoni has always reciprocated that emotion and love towards Chennai and Super Kings fans. He has publicly expressed his desire to say goodbye here and not in Ranchi where he was born or Mumbai, where he became a world champion.
"I never knew that I'll be picked by CSK," Dhoni had said at an event in Chennai in 2021. "I was in the auction and I got picked and it gave me an opportunity to understand the culture, which was very different from where I actually came from. I'm more like a wanderer. My parents came from UP; it was initially UP and then it became Uttarakhand. I was born in Ranchi, which was Bihar, and later on became Jharkhand. I got my job at the age of 18 with the Railways in Kharagpur, West Bengal, and then I came to Chennai. I believe Chennai taught me a lot - when it came to how to conduct myself and how to appreciate the game. Each and every time we came to Chepauk, the fans came and they supported good cricket."
The buzz around Chepauk ahead of CSK's homecoming is unmistakable. "Anna, ticket irundha kudunga. Evalo rate irundhalum paravala (Brother, if you have a ticket, give me. I'm ready to pay anything)," an auto driver outside the Pattabiraman Gate tells us as we enter Chepauk for Ruturaj Gaikwad's pre-match press conference. Then, there are a bunch of security personnel clicking selfies in front of the Dhoni mural.
Gaikwad, too, couldn't hide his excitement at playing his first ever home game for CSK at Chepauk.
"I think everyone is excited," Gaikwad gushes. "There are few players who have played here a few years back and there are few players who have obviously played four years back and there are players who are playing here for the first time, including me. Right from the day that it was announced that it'll be home-away [format] and that we'll be playing at Chepauk and [they] renovated the stadium and everything is new, I am actually really excited. I think everyone around the group is really excited.
"I think it [the practice session that was open to the public last week] was good preparation for the opening game which we played in Ahmedabad. I am sure the noise was equal though there were only 1000 people and there were 100,000 there [Ahmedabad]. The noise was equal. Just imagining the full house tomorrow, everyone is excited."
Even the usually poker-faced Michael Hussey is thrilled to be back at Chepauk, where he hit 63 off 45 balls to help set up CSK's title win as a player in 2011.
"It's great to be back here," Hussey said at an event before Super Kings' training session. "I love coming back to India and obviously Chennai. It's been so long since we've been able to play a game at the Chepauk stadium. I know the players and the coaching staff are really excited about the match coming up. I'm sure the fans are going to be more excited. Really looking forward to a packed house making lots of noise and it will lift them up and hopefully we can put on a great show."
Even B Rocky, a TNPL mystery spinner who is currently with CSK as a net bowler, is just delighted to have spent his birthday recently with Dhoni in Chennai. He kept wheeling away against Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali at the nets on Sunday with a smile on his face.
This isn't just fandom. It's brotherhood. Because it goes both ways. Somewhere around 2010, when he won us the IPL for the first time, and 2011 when he won us the World Cup for the second time, we conferred upon a man the status of a symbol. (PS - it wasn't about the trophies, it was about the feeling). And he lived up to it. He cared about it. And every good thing he did on the field reinforced it. The power in his shots. The stamina he has at 41. The skill with which he controls a game. The euphoria he brings when he changes one. He might not have done it a lot lately, but that's not the point.
Because when Chennai falls in love with someone, it happens in an instant and lasts a lifetime. #ThalaForever