Impassioned in yellow

fervent in yellow

Melbourne. Manchester. Madras (?)

This list seems strange in some way. An attempt at alliteration is evident—Madras has been Chennai for the past 28 years. In addition, it is an odd choice of retiring locations for a legendary Indian cricket player who evidently didn’t give much thought to the last location of his Test and ODI campaigns. Though the final first-class and list A matches of MS Dhoni’s career were inadvertently hosted by Melbourne and Manchester, it is sincerely desired that Chennai will be the T20 representative on that list.

“I played my last One-Day International (ODI) in Ranchi, India. I hope to play my final Twenty20 match in Chennai. “I’m not sure if it will be next year or in five years,” Dhoni remarked at a celebration of the Chennai Super Kings’ 2021 championship victory.

He didn’t waver even after a disastrous leadership move destroyed CSK’s title campaign seven months later. Saying ‘thank you’ and not playing in Chennai would be unfair. It won’t be kind to the CSK supporters,” he said to Ian Bishop after the conclusion of the 2022 season, which was limited to Mumbai and Pune stadiums.

The soundtrack for Dhoni’s farewell trip has been building in volume over the last two years as some sort of normalcy has returned to post-pandemic India. The goal is that Chennai will see the crescendo and the drop, as they call it in the music industry. Ideally, with title No. 6 in tow, on May 26. However, as athletics doesn’t always allow for whimsical tales or even well-planned alliterative symmetry, this “thank you” transaction between a guy and a city might occur two weeks early, on Sunday when the team plays the Rajasthan Royals.

Dhoni is a pragmatic individual who is not inclined towards sentimentality. His 90-Test career came to an end with a brief media statement from the BCCI office after, just minutes earlier, he discussed his team’s lower-order during a press conference at the MCG, speaking extensively about PETA, cosmetic surgery, and Dobermen’s tails. Not with much fanfare, but rather with a song and montage clip on Instagram, more than a year after he’d last played in the national team colours, his India career was also formally ended.

This valedictory aspect to his final lap in cricket and the desire to sign off in Chennai would appear out of character for a former India captain who is supposed to be renowned for being unstung by the emotional upheavals of the role. However, this isn’t entirely true. Because it is in the yellow of CSK that Dhoni has most frequently broken the kayfabe and temporarily severed himself from his calm demeanour.

With one of his signature final-over finishes in Dharamsala, he led CSK to a third IPL semi-final in 2010, making him one of just two captains for India to win a World Cup. Even though his tackle of Irfan Pathan was exciting, what happened after the winning runs will live on in that game forever. While Albie Morkel, a non-striker, extended his arm to embrace him, Dhoni just smirked and punched his helmet grill. He would celebrate his World Cup-winning six a year later at Wankhede Stadium by twirling his bat and bobbing sideways towards the stumps.

Even outside the playing field, CSK unveiled a somewhat altered Dhoni. By bringing up the suspended CSK during the jersey unveiling event for his new team, Rising Pune Supergiant, in 2016, Dhoni disregarded every political and commercial propriety. “I would be lying if I say I have moved on,” he replied. “Playing for any other team feels completely different after eight years of the Indian Premier League. If you want me to suddenly declare that I am thrilled to play for a new team, don’t give CSK and the supporters credit for their love and support—that would be incorrect.

Following his somewhat problematic time with Pune, where he lost his captaincy, he made one of his seldom Instagram appearances, wearing a yellow t-shirt with the number seven and the word “Thala,” which means leader.

Dhoni has gone above and above for CSK, arguing with umpires and fighting back tears at pre-season dinners. He stammered during his remarks regarding the team’s comeback from suspension in 2018. He paused, and Suresh Raina filled the void by approaching the dais with a bottle of water. “What’s important is we go through everything with a smile on your face…” he said.

In the dying seconds of the previous year’s Ahmedabad final, he was seen with his head dropped and his eyes closed in apparent prayer as Mohit Sharma started to run up to Ravindra Jadeja. In celebration of CSK’s fifth triumph, and with Dhoni seemingly capping off in style once more, he told Harsha Bhogle that he wanted to try and endure the grind one more, ‘as a present’ to his supporters, who had persevered through the difficult moments and big hits.

Go over and think back on these moments again; there is one important and contradictory reality that comes out of them. It is that the conventional characteristics that have distinguished each of them historically were reversed in order to create and strengthen this Dhoni-Chennai bond.

Chennai was a historically and culturally rich cricket hub even before the IPL arrived. Both India’s first-ever Test victory (1952) and the inaugural Ranji Trophy match (1934) were held there. It was a slight setback to the city’s huge, enormous balloon of bluster that the state of Tamil Nadu, and by implication, itself, lacked an elite-level cricketing hero to celebrate and claim as its own. During the turn of the century, S. Venkataraghavan, Krishnamachari Srikkanth, Laxmipathy Balaji, and Dinesh Karthik were all excellent cricket players who frequently represented India. However, nobody truly occupied those elite echelons of the sport until Ravichandran Ashwin appeared, shortly after the IPL’s founding.

People involved in the game in the city were especially fascinated by orthodoxy, both in terms of personality and playing style. As much as the ‘prim and appropriate’ methods by which Gundappa Viswanath and Sachin Tendulkar accomplished their batting accomplishments at Chepauk, they were also revered for them. In many respects, the advent of the IPL and T20 cricket ushered a new age in cricket and fans. And Dhoni arrived on the east coast as the epitome of the anti-force, dressing unconventionally and projecting an earthy charm. Along with his extraordinary skill, he carried with him establishment-challenging methods, bravado, and championship DNA.

His aspirational alternative to Chennai was demonstrated by his calm and composed leadership, his “no-give” wicket-keeping approach, and his finishing flourishes. The long mane, the poker look, and the laid-back demeanour gave way to a fresh take on “cool,” which, up until that point, Chennai’s heroes typically needed a few retakes to perfect. For this voyage, they were content to purchase a one-way ticket just.

Furthermore, even after 16 years of dating, there were no signs of love exhaustion. The need for “Thala Dharisanam,” or to see the captain, only intensified when an aged Dhoni started to move down CSK’s batting order. A stadium that had previously cheered on opponents’ players suddenly did the same for top-order CSK wickets, occasionally even to the chagrin of the team’s more experienced players. However, Dhoni stuck to his fashion sense, returning the favour with frequent, jaw-dropping cameos that raised the roof.

By the time the 2020s arrived, Dhoni had become ingrained in both Tamil popular culture and the city’s social fabric. The male lead in a Tamil chartbuster from 2020 sings, “Podhuva Dhoni pola naanum calm-u ma, inniku excitement-u anemma, (Usually I’m as calm as Dhoni, but today I’m excited [seeing you]),” in a virtue-signalling courting. The woman explains why she thinks the two of them are a fantastic match in the previous line: “Naanum neeyum thaan sema jodi.”

Additionally, no player-city combination quite like this has existed in the IPL’s nearly two decades of existence. There has never been a cricket player who completely won over a city despite being an outsider. Bengaluru and Virat Kohli are rather close, but it seems like they still have a ways to go in their relationship. There are other international players that have a chance, like David Warner and Hyderabad, AB de Villiers and Bengaluru, Lasith Malinga and Mumbai, and even David Warner and Hyderabad, but none are quite as inclusive as Chennai’s love for Dhoni, both as a player and a person.

Thus, on Sunday, feelings will be higher than usual. Following the 2023 league final in Chennai, Dhoni said that he had become emotional at the lap of honour. Even the renowned Sunil Gavaskar, who had his own post-match broadcasting duties, was touched enough to get his work-shirt signed. Chennai and Dhoni will want to bid each other a fitting farewell if this is, in fact, the final dance. Neither will be aware of the remaining dalliances.