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regular-article-logo Tuesday, 25 June 2024

Indian Premier League: In Rajini land, superhero MS Dhoni still bats in heartbeats 

Dodgy knee notwithstanding, Chennai still expects Thala to play in next Indian Premier League

Indranil Majumdar Chennai Published 26.05.24, 05:39 AM
Mahendra Singh Dhoni celebrates with fans after Chennai’s last match at the Chepauk this season, on May 12.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni celebrates with fans after Chennai’s last match at the Chepauk this season, on May 12. PTI

For close to two months this nondescript restaurant in downtown Nungambakkam ran full house in the evening on Chennai Super Kings’ match days. Live action on TV would turn it into a trendy joint catering to people of different strata.

It was not just limited to home matches and the craze didn’t subside on days the home team wasn’t involved. The eatery was bursting at the seams till CSK was alive in IPL 2024.

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Things have suddenly nosedived since that fateful evening in Bangalore. How dearly they wished Mahendra Singh Dhoni would have turned that match on its head to take them into the playoffs.

The elimination of the home franchise has set the boisterous city into mourning. This rapture of the city’s cricket aficionado with Dhoni transcends all linguistic barriers.

They don’t make a Thala (leader) often since he is a once in a generation player. Keeping aside the cultural and regional cues, this conservative city always pampers him with spontaneous affection, striking a deep-rooted chord with the common man.

Dhoni, the eternal non-co­nformist in cricket, has admitted his “emotional connect” with the franchise. It has not just been about records, the man on the street has been able to associate his struggles and his hunger for success with Dhoni.

“Chennai has been less parochial when it comes to choosing its heroes. Rajin­ikanth and MG Ramachandran are a case in point. More than achievements, Dhoni’s acceptance to the common man and his warm smile have acted as catalysts to his popularity,” says Venkadesan, the owner of the restaurant. “He has no airs about his status. He often shares a cup of tea with the ground staff. That is humility.”

Even the playoffs haven’t been able to regenerate the same passion and interest among the public. The opportunity to witness local boys Venkatesh Iyer and Varun Chakravarthy battle it out for Kolkata Knight Riders against Sunrisers Hyderabad in Sunday’s final hasn’t been tempting. IPL in Thala-land without its biggest draw can never be the same again.

“The people just love him. Period. How else would you explain the fans filling up the Chepauk stadium just to have a glimpse of their Thala batting in the nets when a few gates were thrown open last year,” Venkadesan said while trying to emulate the helicopter shot with his hand.

The belief remains strong that he will not go back on his word and return to the city next year to play his last match at the Chepauk. There is talk though that with
the mega auction set to take place next year, he isn’t keen to waste their IPL purse by being one of the retained players.

He has already been forced to delay his arrival in the batting order this season because of a dodgy knee, the surgery notwithstanding. Given Dhoni’s enduring legacy and brand value, the team management has left it to him to take a call.

Comparisons to matinee idol Rajinikanth aren’t out of the blue mainly because of their humble backgrounds. Like Rajini, a Maharashtrian by birth, who grew up in Karnataka and was a bus conductor, Dhoni, a ticket collector at Kharagpur Railway station, was born and raised in undivided Bihar, in Ranchi, before he made a name in cricket for Jharkhand. Like Rajini, Dhoni too is being worshipped by a city that is totally different to the one he grew up in.

CSK fans don’t believe that their Dhoni can age. Just like Rajini’s flops are gracefully accepted, Dhoni’s mistimed hit in the last over against RCB is still being talked about. The 110m six off the previous delivery was the longest in the match and the fans believe that if he could deliver it at 43, he is capable enough to continue another season.

“If the ball hadn’t been changed once it had landed on the roof of the stadium, things could have gone CSK’s way. The drier ball allowed Dayal a better grip,” lamented Murali, a Dhoni fan at the restaurant.

Dhoni still can’t speak Tamil but that hasn’t come in the way of the people of the state pouring their love for him. It didn’t happen in an instant and will last a lifetime.

Even as the suspense continues over his availability for another season, the people are not ready to just say, “romba nandri (thank you)” yet. They believe the show will continue.

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