The end of the 'Whistlepodu' era?

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© Official FB - CSK

The end of the 'Whistlepodu' era?

But, CSK is not just any team, somewhere down the line it has built itself into an institution. And institutions are harder to kill, even if they are not immortal. Even if the team does not return to its past glory, its legacy shall live on.

© Official FB - CSK

A stone's throw from the white sands of the Marina lies the Chepauk stadium. A mile south of the Buckingham canal, and a mile north of the Triplicane temple, the arena lies in the heart of old Madras. Cricket matches were won and lost here when the buzzing bazaar of T Nagar was still a forested patch where you regularly spotted feral species, especially foxes. In modern times, the floodlights would illuminate the night sky splendidly and could be seen from across the beach whenever a match was in progress. For a vertically-challenged city, the Chepauk was one of the tallest landmarks – tall enough as you watched from the window, sipping your evening dose of filter coffee, the nondescript white canopy, and the brooding floodlights that towered above. The stadium had seen great acts of sportsmanship in its history. It had given Saeed Anwar a standing ovation when he set his world record of 194 runs. The Pakistan team made a lap of honor appreciating the crowd when they won a Test here in 1999. Understated, resilient, and gentlemanly if you could ever call a thing that – it epitomized the city.

Understated, resilient and gentlemanly– it was befitting that M S Dhoni came to call the Chepauk his home in the winter of 2008. While the gentleman was always there, it would be sometime before he came to be strongly associated with the other two adjectives. He had just gotten rid of that flamboyant hair right after the T20 World Cup win. And he was yet to suffer the short memory of the Indian cricket fan.

© Official FB - CSK

The early years

When Richard Madley struck the hammer for the first time in IPL history, CSK had broken the bank to get his signature on the dotted line – a whopping 1.5 million dollars. Also brought in were 'son-in-law of the soil' Muttiah Muralitharan, Suresh Raina, Matthew Hayden, Stephen Fleming, and Michael Hussey. The team began with a bang on April 19, 2008, when they won against the Kings XI Punjab after posting the highest T20 total back then of 240 – albeit away from home in Mohali. KXIP would turn out to be the bunny for CSK time and again, but they did not know it yet. After placing third in the league stage, CSK faced and defeated Kings XI Punjab again in the semi-final this time by nine wickets.

The final against Shane Warne's Rajasthan Royals was a heart-breaker though. A minute past midnight on the first of June, Sohail Tanvir struck the winning runs in the final ball of the match to end CSK's brilliant run to the title.

After gathering and comforting the team, Dhoni said, “We lost as a team. There were a few errors in batting and bowling. We're not really unhappy or bogged down by it. We'll go back to our hotel and enjoy it. That's what sport is all about.” That is what CSK would be then and after – win as a team and when they did lose, still as a team. They would never have any galacticos like Bangalore had, there would be no star who carried them start-to-finish like Gilly did in 2009, they wouldn't even have a legitimate pacer like Malinga or Dale Steyn. The team was forged and held together by the will of one man; good batsmen transformed to great match-winners; a ragtag bunch of has-been and never-will-be bowlers turned world-class for just two months of the year.

2009 was to be the year when that chink in the armor would be rectified – Andrew Flintoff was signed for a sum that bettered even Dhoni's record previous year. Flintoff, however, played just three matches before suffering a knee injury that ruled him out for good. CSK was also without the services of Michael Hussey, who had wanted to focus on the Ashes, the pivotal series which Australia eventually lost 2-1. Despite the setbacks, CSK finished second in the league stage, only to see hopes of a second shot at title fade away when they lost to RCB.

#whistlepodu

The Tamils are a very closed group – it has to do with the state's distinct culture in no small part aided by its geographical location, may be it has something to do with the state's deliberate ignorance of the 'national language', but the fact remains that the people take time to warm up to you. But, when they do, they develop life-long bonds and could be loyal to a fault. But, Dhoni was adopted overnight as a son of the soil. 'Thala', as he would be remembered evoked a level of fanaticism that had hitherto been reserved for only the likes of MGR and Rajnikanth, both interestingly not from Tamil Nadu.

Chennai Super Kings would develop a fanbase the likes of which was never before seen in Indian sports - even before the exploits of 2010 and 2011 would happen. All routes converged at the Chepauk on match day. As the hour approached, trains would start empty and along the line, you could gradually see the yellow jerseys popping up here and there eventually turning into a sea of yellow by the time Chepauk came up. As the horde descended upon the empty stands, you could reach out and almost feel the electricity in the air. Not for nothing was it called 'Fortress Chepauk' – it would remain impregnable for an entire season in 2011, a first in the IPL.

And after the yellow jersey, nothing would come to signify CSK more than Whistlepodu. Composed and recorded in the span of a single day in 2008 by an MCC pass-out and a post-grad from BITS Pilani who were asked to make a trippy song on a shoestring budget, 'Whistlepodu' was an overnight success – something the aforementioned duo never dreamed of when making it. By 2009, the song was familiar to every cricket fan in the country. As other teams jumped from one song to the other, Whistlepodu would convert even the haters into fans year after year.

Third time's the charm

2010 didn't start so well. By the half-way mark in the league phase, they had won only two out of the first seven matches. Back home in the fortress after the string of losses, local boy Murali Vijay ignited the resurgence as they won four of the next five matches. A loss again in the penultimate game pitted them in a must-win away encounter at the exquisite Dharamsala grounds against Kings XI Punjab.

The home team set a huge total of 193 for CSK to chase. When 'Thala' came into the fray, CSK still needed 105 runs to win off 10 overs. Despite some heavy-hitting by Dhoni with support from Badri, by the end of the 17th over when Badri left, CSK had 44 runs to make off 18 balls to reach the semis. As it went down to the wire, CSK were left requiring 16 runs off the last over.

Irfan Pathan was to bowl the last six balls of the match, and Dhoni was on strike. The first ball was not bad, a wide ball, almost a yorker, but Dhoni powered it through the long-off for a four. The second ball was not bad at all – slow and back of a length and Dhoni skied it. Piyush Chawla was slow off the blocks and messes up a potential catch. The third ball was a missed yorker, and Dhoni bludgeoned the ball a 106 metres over the long-on fence well above the stands. Cricinfo's commentary famously read “McLeodganj, send the ball back please!”. Another scorching six over long-off and CSK were through.

It was an intensely emotional moment for the man. He was so pumped up, so pumped up that he dealt himself a solid uppercut as he ran down the pitch shouting to himself past team-mate Morkel. He had seen bigger stages and won in them, but this night was something special.

At the presentation, when quizzed about his uncharacteristic display, he said, “It was an emotional moment.

“The kind of franchise we have got, the kind of team we have, we should have made it to the semi-finals before this game. So it was an emotional moment, at least for me."After defeating defending champions Deccan Chargers in the semis, CSK faced Mumbai, in Mumbai, for the trophy. Batting first, CSK posted a creditable total of 168 on the back on an unbeaten 57 by Suresh Raina. Ravichandran Ashwin, whom Dhoni would groom to be the greatest spinner of his time over the years, and Muthiah Muralidharan, already the greatest off-spinner of all-time then spun a web around the Mumbai batsmen as they restricted to 146 at the end of the 20 overs. CSK finally lifted the trophy that had eluded them two years back on April 25, 2010.

CSK won the Champions League title as well in 2010 with Player of the Series Ashwin and top-scorer Murali Vijay leading from the front.

Fourth time as well was

2011 marked tumultuous times with teams allowed to hold only four players while the rest were to be put on auction. Despite that, CSK managed to retain the core of the team. After a characteristically slow start, CSK rallied back to win seven of their last eight matches only to be stopped in the last league match by a new-look RCB whose line-up read ABD, Chris Gayle, Virat Kohli..

CSK would have disproportionate revenge for this inconsequential slight very soon. The play-offs was again a Southern derby as CSK faced league leaders and title favorites RCB. Chasing a tricky total of 175, CSK were propelled over the line by the ever-dependable Suresh Raina, who remained unbeaten on 73.

The final was at Chepauk, and RCB was once again the opponent. This time, there was no needless nail-biting, though. Murali Vijay's express 95 meant RCB had a mammoth 206 runs to chase amid a roaring sea of yellow-clad fans, and they were never in for a chance. Ravichandran Ashwin took out Chris Gayle in his fourth ball, and the non-existent chance vanished completely with that.

(Cricinfo commentary of the match). Ravichandran Ashwin even remarked, “I have told a few people that we'd like to be the Man United of the IPL, and we are getting there.The second title was sweeter, coming at home. After the match, a visibly relieved Dhoni said, “Last year we struggled a bit to make the semis, this time, it was more comfortable. I am happy to have also won the fair play award, people say you need to play hard. We showed you can play fair and still win it. Have been in India for the last 4 months, but never visited home. I am heading straight to Ranchi from here!" The short speech gave more than a glimpse of the man, his respect for the opposition, and his dedication.CSK's dominance of the league was now complete.

Friendly banter ranging from how they did not leave even the fair play award for the others to how the previous 73 matches were so inconsequential that from next season teams should take turns to lose to Chennai directly in the final instead of wasting two months flew about around that time 

The dominance was so complete and the fans as fanatic. He was probably also alluding to the late-season comebacks that had become the norm at CSK.

The missed hat-trick

Once again, they started slow winning only five of the first 12 matches – the hat-trick suddenly seemed a distant dream. And once again, they rallied back and qualified for the play-offs by the breadth of a hair. After running through Mumbai Indians and Delhi in the playoffs, CSK seemed finally poised to make the hat-trick – after all the final was in Chepauk.

The stands were a uniform swaying mass of yellow, as Suresh Raina once again set up an eminently winnable total of 190 with Brett Lee in particular being taken to the cleaners. No way such a big total could be chased at the lion's den! When Gautam Gambhir got out in the very first over, it seemed certain. But then, fate had other plans.

Manvinder Bisla, whose only claim to fame would remain that evening, dismantled the CSK attack over the next ten overs or so, so much that by the midway mark, KKR needed only 91 runs off 60 balls with 9 wickets in hand. By then an eerie silence over the inevitability of the end had descended upon the stands as the aura of invincibility slowly but finally faded into the night sky. The KKR fan in our group of four at long-off was among the few pockets that had begun early celebrations. The Chepauk crowd, however, was as always sportive in the end despite the massive disappointment and the off-field antics by KKR owner Shah Rukh Khan that were over the top even by his standards, as he went on to "thank" Dhoni and Chennai for losing the match.

Dhoni, on the other hand, was level-headed and academic in defeat – wins and losses are but a blip in the grand play of life for Captain cool! Even if it was a near-miss on a historic hat-trick.

“Cricket is a game of plus ten minus ten. It is always like that. Under the conditions, we batted well.

I am happy with our performance'” he said at the press conference.

Even the mighty fall

After the dizzying heights of the past three years, 2013 and 2014 were bad years for CSK by CSK standards. CSK were in imperious form as they set a record seven-match winning streak to finish the league stage on top of the table. They comprehensively defeated Mumbai Indians to reach the final, but it was Mumbai that they faced again after the Rohit Sharma-led side sneaked into the final through qualifiers. The trophy looked to be in reach after they finished Mumbai off for a modest 148, but the hopes lay in tatters at 3/3 when tournament top-scorer Matthew Hayden and talisman Suresh Raina decided on that particular day to have their off-day.

When Dhoni arrived, it was already 36/5, and his arrival did not stop the rout as wickets fell at the other end. Even when the eighth wicket fell at 58, Mumbai's celebrations were markedly conservative - they knew it was not done until Dhoni remained. Such was the respect he commanded, and he would do enough to reinforce it that night. But, what could one man do? When the night was over, Dhoni remained unbeated at 63 and had saved CSK from an ignominious all-out. The rest of the team had scored 62!

But more ignominious by far was actually the spot-fixing scandal that hit the team. It was the utter precipice. Gurunath Meiyappan, son-in-law of N Srinivasan and team principal of CSK had been arrested just two days before the final. While the management immediately disowned him, the damage had been done, and the slow and ruthless wheels of the judicial system had been set in motion.

While it was beyond doubt that Meiyappan had access to the dressing room, there was never even an inkling of doubt over any of the team members involved in it. The claims against Dhoni appeared hollow and were eventually dismissed as those of a disgruntled dad – that was borderline sacrilege! CSK's position seemed precarious, but N Srinivasan's clout and the Indian judiciary's pace ensured the team did not suffer consequentially – if only for the time being.

#SaveCSK

The shadows of the scandal hung heavy as CSK started the 2014 campaign. The team finished third in the group stage and would have some revenge as they defeated Mumbai in the first qualifier. But the campaign ended before the final when they failed to chase a massive 226 against KXIP despite a 25-ball 87 cameo by Suresh Raina and Dhoni's unbeaten 42.

2015 was predictable – CSK entered the play-offs, lost the first, but defeated RCB to reach the final. Usual, usual. In a disappointing final at the Eden Gardens, they lost to Mumbai Indians. But the real disappointment came two months later when the Mudgal committee suspended CSK for a period of two years. While I am far from legally qualified to understand the decision, the common sense in auctioning the team to bidders who were ten degrees removed from N Srinivasan and the owners seemed a much more commonsensical option, but then I am biased. What is the point of punishing the fans when the fault lay elsewhere? Breaking the team was brutal for the fans, but Lady Justice is blind.

The fans mounted passionate campaigns to save the team. Signature campaigns were organized all through the city, school kids lined up in protests, skits were staged in street corners, surprisingly and thankfully there were no self-immolations in Chennai style! But the law had already spoken.

To move on or not to

Eventually, life goes on. The city had bigger problems in life to manage as 2015 came to an end. By the time they were back on their feet after the floods, Dhoni had moved to Pune, along with Ashwin, du Plessis and coach Fleming. However, moving on is easier said than done.

When he was in Pune three days back, MSD revealed that very rare part of his when he got emotional about CSK.

“I would be lying if I say I have moved on. That is the special part of being a human being. There is got to be an emotional connect after eight years (with CSK).

“If you want me to be politically correct, that is not how I am. After eight years of IPL, it feels very different to play for any other team. All of a sudden if you want me to say that I am very excited to play for a new team, don’t give credit to CSK and the fans for the love and affection they have given us, it will be wrong,” Dhoni said to PTI.

Well. Long distance relationships are always hard! With the umbilical connection severed, Dhoni's only link with the city remains the Chennaiyin FC football team and his honorary position at India Cements. CSK fans may obstinately refuse to watch the next two seasons and wait for the evening when the battle calls ring again at the Chepauk. Dhoni may or not may not be playing cricket by that time in April 2018. If he did, few would doubt that he would be donning the yellow jersey behind the stumps that night. And few would doubt that the sea of yellow en route from Chepauk station on to Wallajah road would just be bigger that evening than ever. However, the skeptic in me refuses to believe things would ever return to normal.

Even a happy-go-lucky Aussie like Andy Bichel finds it difficult to believe. The CSK bowling coach was quite emotional last week. “Oh, it's very sad. Very sad. Something we've worked so hard for.

It's sad that it's all broken down. Let's hope it can come back but it'll never be the same. And that's probably the saddest part about the whole scenario that's unfolded,” he said, reported the Hindu.

But, CSK is not just any team, somewhere down the line it has built itself into an institution. And institutions are harder to kill, even if they are not immortal. Even if the team does not return to its past glory, its legacy shall live on. It's not so easy to be so consistent – cross the leagues all eight times, cross the semis four times, and take the title twice. No one else has achieved even half that! And the legacy shall live on even after Dhoni has hung his boots. The backbone of the Indian team that was forged in the Chennai grounds shall form the vanguard of Indian cricket for years to come.

We will return in 2018. And we will take back what's rightfully ours!

On second chances, do give this one a read :Mohammad Amir- Everybody deserves a second chance 

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