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#Thalaforareason … but Thala for another season?

The fans came in hordes to watch MS Dhoni do his thing, and despite all his limitations he left them hoping he returns next year

Alagappan Muthu
Alagappan Muthu
Everybody has a vice and in India, for bits of March, all of April and some of May, a lot of us get hooked on a 42-year-old classic.
Chennai was the first to fall for his charms. We made him ours. We gave him a pet name. Something clever and understated. Nah, just kidding. We like shiny and OTT.
It's strange and beautiful and cartoonish and profound. This bond with this outsider who, right from the very first day, seemed so happy to be with us. All he asked in return was carte blanche so he could win us trophies, and access to a bike so he could zip around the city. Just him and the spirit inside him. The one that makes him untameable. This was back in 2008. His risk of being recognised was less. That's changed.
Now Mahi can't step out anywhere because MS Dhoni is everywhere. So he settles his cravings in other ways. Like having his security guards ride pillion as he takes them from his front door to his front gate. Inside, he is still the same gearhead, the one who reportedly drank litres of milk, and adores his dogs so much he cuts his birthday cakes with them. Outside, he is the captain who won India their first World Cup in 24 years and the greatest finisher cricket has ever known.
Man and myth.
This IPL has seen the two sides of Dhoni in wonderful harmony. In Mumbai, for example, he was in danger of keeling over as he reached out to Ruturaj Gaikwad because he wanted a pat on the back from his captain for hitting back-to-back-to-back sixes. Later, in front of his home crowd, the people who once filled up a third of the stands for a pre-season practice game, he had Ravindra Jadeja act as if he was going out to bat, sending everybody - including those in the dressing room - into a panic. But it was all a prank. Dude likes to pull our legs and our heartstrings.
Dhoni promised one more season and in the course of it, he has pushed both body and mind to create these moments. He has been seen wearing a strap around his waist, possible mitigation against a side strain. He is taking great pains to present us with these memories. He can rest knowing they will last forever.
It wasn't always like this. There was a time when Dhoni looked eminently mortal. A time when his performances dipped so sharply that the same words that were used to praise him were being used to bring him down. #Thalaforareason. Clips would emerge of him dancing awkwardly as an explanation of his waning power. Dude's spending too much time doing this nonsense. He's taken them both back now: the song that was playing as he displayed two left feet and the hashtag. He sings it himself in a lovely ad for an electric bike.
Dhoni has faced worse than trolls before. He once spoke of how the Indian team came back home at the end of the 2007 ODI World Cup and instead of being able to go home, they had to spend part of the night in a police station because the airport was filled with so much media personnel that it had become a security risk; that en route, they were even chased by the TV cameras. Good thing his job didn't demand he face them day after day after day.
As India captain Dhoni had an obligation to face the press. At CSK, since it wasn't international cricket, he could get away with a few things. So for once, someone else was taking a burden off him instead of the other way around. All of this plays a part, because he's spent 15 years in the same place, with no desire to move. He has to have had opportunities. He's too big a name, too big a brand, for there never to have been an approach. Dhoni chose Chennai. Several times in all likelihood.
The fans appreciated that.
Over and over.
Creating a whole new subdivision of the Tamil meme culture.
That everyone wanted in on.
It helped that he's been in form. Dhoni's numbers in this IPL put him in a very select group of nine men - it was four prior to the 2024 batting boom - who have been able to score at least 100 runs in a season at a strike rate of twice that. But even that can't quite explain what he means to the fans. Something else did.
Chennai Super Kings needed 50-something, possibly thousand, runs to beat Gujarat Titans. Everyone was screaming. Waving the flag. Thumping their chest. Dancing on seats. Only these guys were dressed in yellow - painted in some cases - and somewhere in the back of their mind they understood they were losing but it didn't seem to matter. Usually, it's the game that galvanises fans like this. The intricacy. The history. The chaos. The heartbreak. But this time it was a man. One man. The man.
Dhoni was out of his crease, and having waited until the bowler had released, he earned himself the chance to do anything he wanted. So up went the backswing. Down came the bat. Still stayed the head. And snap went the wrist. The ball had safely boarded the helicopter and was off for an unforgettable ride.
On Saturday in Bengaluru, CSK were behind enemy lines, their supporters stunned into silence and forced to contemplate an end that felt like it had come a bit too early. It was the final over. His eternal playground. And it started with a 110-metre six. Dhoni had given the ball an ultimatum. Disintegrate or disappear.
He fell immediately after. So, potentially the last scoring shot of a career defined by big hits was a big hit. As he walked away, he offered one of those rare bursts of emotion. He punched his bat. Later, when it was confirmed that CSK were knocked out of the playoffs, the camera panned to him slumped against one of the chairs in the dugout and light was reflecting from the sides of his eyes. Almost as if there had been tears there. Millions of us watched him in that intimate moment and wondered if he had it in him to give us another season.
It started raining in Chennai at exactly this time. We had hoped for more than this. Not for us. For him. We've been raised to believe in third-act miracles. We thought 2023 was it. He thought 2023 was it. "This is the best time to announce my retirement." A city of 6.5 million waited with bated breath at 2 in the morning hoping there would be a "but". And there was.
My mother stayed up with me and my brother that night. That was her first season of watching the IPL. Now she texts me stories about Dhoni. Pictures of him when he was a kid. Rumours of the struggles he's going through. I'd spent all my life thinking my grandfather's love for the game had skipped a generation. By the way, this is what it's like in pretty much every household in Chennai this time of year. You walk in and you'll see oru amma, oru appa, oru thambi, oru thala (a mother, father, little son and thala).

Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo