Chennai is Thala MS Dhoni's territory. You must have seen that reception when Dhoni merely rocked up for training in the lead-up to IPL 2019. Dhoni isn't here with India's ODI squad in the city - well, he hasn't been available since the 50-over World Cup earlier this year - but he's everywhere in Chennai. There are posters and images of him - mostly in Chennai Super Kings' yellow - on metro rails and airports among other places. He even has a street named after him in the city.

On Sunday there wasn't enough buzz in Chennai in the build-up to the ODI series opener against West Indies - possibly due to the absence of Dhoni in the side. This was Chennai's first international in more than a year and first ODI in more than two years, but reports had emerged by the start of the game that some of the tickets were still unsold.

Plus, rain had lashed Chennai in the past couple of days, wiping out both sides' practice sessions on the eve of the match. The crowd began building up later in the afternoon, but West Indies' left-arm seamer Sheldon Cottrell hushed them by nipping out both Virat Kohli and KL Rahul in the seventh over.

Both batsmen were tricked by cutters as India slipped to 25 for 2. Rohit Sharma then holed out for 36 in the 19th over. Chennai is used to seeing Dhoni pulling off rescue acts not just in yellow but also in India colours. Remember, India v Pakistan in 2012 or more recently India v Australia in 2017?

No Dhoni? No problem for India, at least on Sunday. Dhoni's successor Rishabh Pant stepped up on a familiar, sluggish Chepauk pitch and raised the crowd from its stupor. He even unveiled his version of the helicopter shot and had the Chennai crowd chanting: "Pant! Pant! Pant!".

His maiden ODI half-century - 71 off 69 balls - masked India's rare top-order wobble and hoisted them up to 288 for 8.

When Pant had joined Shreyas Iyer, India were 80 for 3 and the pitch was throwing up some tricks. Some balls skidded from a length, while others stopped from a similar length. Pant was wary of the challenge and began by playing out five successive dots.

Alzarri Joseph hit speeds north of 140kph and found extra bounce, but Pant smartly rode it and worked him square - or behind square on the leg side - to repair the innings along with Iyer. Pant then ventured to drive on the up, but the slowness of the pitch didn't allow him to get the ball away. So, he wound up splicing Joseph much straighter as opposed to hitting it squarer on the off side.

At the other end, allrounder Keemo Paul found some movement with his cutters and rollers, but Pant stood outside the crease to counter this threat.

Having come to grips with the pitch, Pant knuckled down against the seamers and got to 12 off 22 balls. Offspinning allrounder Roston Chase then dropped a short offbreak that broke further away from Pant, but the 22-year old adjusted to it, delayed his pull, and swatted the ball away to the midwicket boundary.

Pant opted to take more risks against Chase, including a slog-swept six against the turn over midwicket. All up, Pant took 18 off 13 balls from Chase. He was more circumspect against Paul's variations, but when he sprayed one down the leg side in the 31st over, Pant helicoptered it Dhoni-style to the long-leg boundary and thrilled the crowd.

West Indies captain Kieron Pollard then recalled Cottrell in search of a breakthough, but Pant saw him off too and reached his fifty off 49 balls. He celebrated the landmark by dashing down the track and thumping Chase flat over his head for four.

"Pant is the kind of batsman who can change the momentum of the game and that's what he did today," Iyer told Star Sports after India's innings. "I just told him [Pant] to try and hit straight because you'll get to know the wicket and know how you can play."

Pant was then reprieved by Cottrell on 56 and he managed to add only 15 to his tally before being dismissed by Pollard's offcutter. However, his contribution and restraint in a 114-run fourth-wicket stand had armed India with a strong total on an ageing track.

In recent months, Pant has come under immense pressure - both in front of and behind the stumps. When the wicketkeeper-batsman has missed chances, spectators have chanted Dhoni's name to wind him up.

On Sunday evening, however, Pant walked off to rousing applause and more chants of "Pant! Pant! Pant!" in Thala's territory.

Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo