Motera goes yellow in anticipation of Dhoni's last dance
It was the perfect result for the Ahmedabad crowd: their defending champions getting off to a winning start, even while they had their fill of the MS Dhoni show
On IPL opening night, a 100,000-strong Ahmedabad crowd enjoyed the best of both worlds. It couldn't have been more perfect for them than an MS Dhoni special and Gujarat Titans win.
Except, Motera's definition of "special" was something as simple as Dhoni tying his shoelaces, Dhoni waving while being paraded around the ground on a golf cart decked up like a chariot, or, even better, Dhoni emerging from the dressing room in his match gear. Who could fault them for going into a tizzy, though, with it being just shy of eight years since he last played at the ground. In fact, it was closing in on a year since he was last spotted on a cricket field of note anywhere, and that last sighting was at the end of an atypically woeful run for Chennai Super Kings at IPL 2022. Yes, everyone was waiting to see Dhoni, at 41, hoping for one more glimpse of the man if not the legend.
They had braved traffic snarls, the sapping humidity that typically follows a summer downpour, the long queues to pick up physical tickets, and impossible levels of frisking and poking and prodding to finally get to their seats. As if all of this wasn't stressful enough, they had to sit through the opening ceremony with the anxiety of whether Dhoni would actually play.
On match eve, Dhoni had trained with knee braces. The news spread like wildfire on social media, with reports emerging that he'd probably have to skip the game. So every move Dhoni made today was viewed through the prism of him being a doubtful starter.
When he stretched his right leg, they wondered if he'd cramped. When he crouched low and did his wicketkeeping drills, they wondered if he was testing his hamstrings. When he gently lobbed a few overarm deliveries during the warm-ups, they wondered if the casual vibe was a sign of him not playing. Then, during the match, in the dying moments, when he clutched his toes to stretch after diving but failing to stop four leg byes, there was a collective cry of anguish, the four leg byes that benefitted Titans be damned.
It needed a breathtaking opening ceremony to briefly keep the Dhoni chorus away. It felt like a home game for Chennai Super Kings, but when has it not been so at a Super Kings game, particularly since Dhoni's message on Instagram at 19:29 on India's Independence Day in 2020 to "consider me retired" from international cricket. Covid-19 pushed the IPL that year to September and CSK went on to have a season to forget, finishing joint-last on the points table. He couldn't sign off altogether from cricket on that note, surely?
In 2021, Dhoni duly lifted the IPL trophy. Dad's Army had done it. There couldn't have been a sweeter way to bid goodbye, right? But the win hadn't come in Chennai, with the IPL once again moved to the UAE due to Covid-19. How could he have left without saying goodbye to his beloved Chepauk faithful? And so he came back in 2022, only for the tournament to be played only in Mumbai and Pune as cricket, like everything else, slowly got back on its feet after the ravages of the pandemic.
In a rare expression of emotion after the season, Dhoni said he'd like to say goodbye in front of his home fans. When? No one knew.
And so, here we were, in 2023, beginning all over again. Wondering if this would be his last dance. It's a thought that consumed many in the crowd as they watched the opening ceremony. There was a point when the cameras panned to the Super Kings dugout with Dhoni the only one seated there, his feet tapping to Arijit Singh's chartbusters. From singing along to "Channa Mereya" the crowd switched to "Dhooo-ni! Dhooo-ni!". It was a proper throwback for those who grew up in the '90s and 2000s, to hearing chants of "Saaa-chin! Saaa-chin!".
At several points during Super Kings' innings, the crowd yelled for Dhoni to come out. For close to 90 minutes, they keep trying. At one point when Shivam Dube kept swinging for the hills and missing, they lost patience. The home team was in the ascendancy despite an astounding Ruturaj Gaikwad innings. You'd think the home fans would have rejoiced. They didn't. They kept waiting for Dhoni. And after 90 minutes, when he finally took strike, the noise was deafening.
But the loudest cheer on the night was yet to come. It was reserved for when he clattered his fourth ball for a six off Josh Little. Hardik Pandya could have well been left wondering if this was what they meant by home advantage.
The Dhoni mania briefly gave way to rich applause when Shubman Gill played a series of aesthetically pleasing shots to get Titans' chase going. But every now and then, there was a reminder that the fans were mostly here for Dhoni.
The 179 Super Kings had set wasn't quite in the Dhoni territory of choke by spin, definitely not on this deck where the ball skidded through and came on nicely. But in empowering two rookies in Tushar Deshpande and Rajvardhan Hangargekar with the new ball, Dhoni played his cards like he always has amid the clamour.
He was calm even when Deshpande went for a succession of boundaries and when he and Hangargekar overstepped. He was waiting for that one opening, and when he finally had it, he brought Ravindra Jadeja on and promptly attacked, with a slip in place for Hardik. Perhaps the presence of that fielder prompted Hardik's dismissal, bowled missing a sweep.
The match nearly went into Dhoni's grasp after Hangargekar struck in the 18th over, but in the end it became amply evident that Super Kings' middle-order slip-up, after Gaikwad's stunner, was going to cost them. Dhoni alluded to this, his parting line at the presentation being: "I'm not disappointed, our bowlers tried their best." It was a typical, succinct Dhoni assessment of where they'd erred.
As for the crowd, they left a happy lot, perhaps wishing they could see a repeat of this clash come May 28, and return in big numbers to cheer for the man in the yellow No. 7 jersey while having their own team defend their crown.
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo