The record books will indicate that this isn’t a rivalry between equals, but cold statistics can never do justice to raw emotion. Chennai Super Kings (CSK) lead their head-to-head against Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) by a commanding 19-10 margin, that is indisputable. But when these two teams meet in the Indian Premier League (IPL), there is theatre and drama, and the end result becomes almost irrelevant, no matter how silly that might sound.
The latest chapter in this most celebrated face-off will be enacted at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium, the stage of many a rousing showdown in the southern derby. Normally, when RCB play at their home base, the stadium is draped in a sea of red and black; such is the deep-throated approbation for their heroes that even the most seasoned and battle-hardened of cricketers can’t help but feel intimidated. And when Virat Kohli plays one of his creamy cover-drives or dreamy wrist-whips, the roof is in serious danger of coming down on the packed house.
Monday (April 17), however, will be different. The red-and-black will face stiff competition from the yellow of CSK, to whose fans the team and the franchise mean the world. When CSK were suspended from the IPL for two years, it was as if their world had ended. The news of the suspension was greeted with tears. Highly-placed professionals, emotionally invested homemakers and young boys and girls wept unashamedly; when the team returned to the fray in 2018, more tears were shed — this time of unalloyed joy and unfettered delight. The emotional connect between the franchise and its supporters was, and continues to remain, staggering.
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It’s not difficult to see why CSK is a rage in Chennai, in Tamil Nadu, in India. Even outside India. Lately, they have hardly fielded a home-grown player for a sustained spell – there was a time when M Vijay, R Ashwin and even Anirudha Srikkanth were regulars – but then again, they haven’t needed to. After all, they boast Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the king of kings.
If Kohli is the toast of Bengaluru, then Dhoni is larger than life in the Tamil Nadu capital. They worship the ground on which he walks, they savour his casual wave as if it were a personal greeting. They hang on to his every word, and they believe he can do no wrong, that there is nothing beyond him.
It’s not a one-sided relationship, it isn’t unrequited affection. Dhoni reciprocates the immense love he receives from the CSK loyalists. He didn’t need to make tall pronouncements to win them over, but once he said when he was leading Rising Pune Supergiants (RPS) during CSK’s suspension that his heart beat for the franchise and that he couldn’t wait to be back in their yellow, the deal was sealed. Permanently.
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Dhoni’s career is on its last legs
Dhoni has a sense of occasion, a penchant for drama, a wand for a bat. On CSK’s comeback from the wilderness in 2018, he masterminded a magnificent coup. A Bollywood scriptwriter would have been hard pressed to come up with a storyline of the kind Dhoni oversaw that year. Dwayne Bravo and Kedar Jadhav, on one leg, pulling off the impossible in their comeback game against holders Mumbai Indians (MI) at the Wankhede Stadium. Sam Billings and Ravindra Jadeja pulling off an encore against Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) at the MA Chidambaram Stadium, rocking and ululating and reverberating and resonating with love for the prodigal sons. A topsy-turvy, emotional run to the final culminated in a spectacular eight-wicket win over Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH) in the final, Shane Watson striking dread into the hearts of Kane Williamson’s men with an unbeaten century.
Dhoni, though, isn’t just a hit with the CSK fans. The volume of work he has put in for the last 18 and a half years, since his India debut in December 2004, has made him the darling of the nation. Few others have sent millions into raptures with a wave of the hand, a smile on the lips. Dhoni, the one-time unpolished gem from Ranchi who has metamorphosed into the most suave of individuals, possesses that charisma, that charm, that drawing power. That’s why wherever CSK play till Dhoni is in the mix in some capacity or the other, they will never be short of support and patronage.
One doesn’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that Dhoni’s career is on its last legs. On dodgy knees, if you like. It’s possible – you can’t ever say anything with uncertainty about MS, can you? – that this will be his last season as a player. In less than three months’ time, he will turn 42. All campaign long, he has been afflicted by knee injuries but typically, he has gone about his business without fuss. His heart will continue to beat for CSK, but for how long will the heart rule over the head? And the body? Creaking limbs and a protesting body, with the knee as the most vocal protestor, are the legacy of a career most storied, but the sands of time didn’t wait for Gavaskar and Tendulkar, and they sure won’t wait for Dhoni.
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Tickets sold out
From the time the RCB-CSK fixture was pencilled in for April 17 at the Chinnaswamy – the teams will meet just once in the league phase – the clamour for tickets has been unending. ‘Friends’ who have been incommunicado for years have inundated one with phone calls, relatives suddenly have woken up to the realisation that there’s someone in the family who can ‘help’ with tickets/complimentary passes. Tickets available for sale online vanished in a flash, boards have been up outside the Chinnaswamy with the ‘sold out’ sign, and that still hasn’t prevented thousands from queuing up, literally, hoping against hope for one last sighting of thala. A few dozens lined up inside the Chinnaswamy on Sunday evening for CSK’s practice, and provided a taste of things to come on the morrow when Dhoni sauntered on to the ground at 5.30 pm, with a bat in hand. What must it be like to be Mahendra Singh Dhoni?
On Monday, Dhoni will attempt to roll the clock back once again like he has done more than once in a season where he has hit a six every four and a half balls faced. He has a strike-rate of 214.81, and almost pulled off the impossible when 21 were needed off the last over against Rajasthan Royals (RR) and CSK fell short by just three. Dhoni, we know, writes his own scripts. Wonder what Manic Monday has in store.