This is not the Chennai Super Kings of 2013. The one before the spot-fixing scandal broke over the Indian Premier League, who seemed to be a perfect blend of all that was required in a Twenty20 team then. They were on track then to add a third trophy to their collection, but events beyond the field which you couldn’t have predicted, came to a head just before the tournament’s climatic stages and the team that took the field in the final was mentally shot. Until then, Chennai had distilled together the essence of ‘Twenty20-ness’ if you will in that season.
This is not the Chennai Super Kings of 2015 even, when they were good enough to make the final of that year’s IPL, but never looked like the best team on the park for any extended duration of the tournament. They almost gave the impression of having hustled their way to the top of the points table, with smarts coming into play as much as skills did. That they belonged in the top half was not in doubt, but even when they reached the knockout stages, the familiar aura of invincibility didn’t automatically surround them, as it had tended to do in the past.
This is the Chennai Super Kings of 2018, and they have no business winning. They picked a team at the auctions that was quickly christened ‘dad’s army’ because it was so filled with veterans. They have a captain who looks increasingly a liability with the bat in hand. Their home matches were to be a grand, festive occasion, but they had to deal with violent protests about an issue completely unconnected with the IPL. They had to withstand protestors who flung shoes, and dignity. They’ve lost two key players to injuries.
So of course, they are at the top of the points table in the IPL right now.
If I believed in a supernatural god-like entity, I’d have put it down to this being reward for the legion of Chennai fans. Even applying healthy doses of scepticism and disbelief, it’s an explanation that draws you. Sport has to reward those who invest the most in it – emotionally not monetarily – for it to mean something eventually. And of all the franchises that have been part of the IPL, no one has taken a team quite to heart, or given up their hearts for, like the Chennai faithful have.
At the time of writing, there is talk that the first match at Chennai’s home ground may well have been its last of this season, thanks to the protestors. Which makes the lone match even more poignant, giving fans in Chennai not just a long-awaited glimpse of their team, but of their team pulling off one of their famous defying-death wins. If they had to get one match only after two years’ absence, it was fitting that it was of this kind.
On the form front, it is early days in IPL 2018, not-yet-time-to-hit-snooze on the alarm clock early. But Chennai have two wins in two matches – which is two wins more than they would have been expected to get. Especially for someone who watched three quarters of each of their chases against Mumbai Indians and Kolkata Knight Riders. They were dead and buried against Mumbai, which was along expected lines given the on-paper strength of both teams, and then Dwayne Bravo happened. They were dead and buried against Kolkata, which was also expected given Chennai’s fragile batting order and Kolkata’s mammoth total. And then Sam Billings happened.
The two-year ban on Chennai was particularly harsh on its fans, because they were in the unique space of still having faith that the team itself was clean and being punished for one errant official, and having to live with an enforced absence nonetheless. Whether the faith was justified or not is immaterial – it was there.
By rights, the biggest talking points about Chennai’s start to the season should have been a national debate on MS Dhoni’s continuously waning powers as a batsman. Scoring at less than a run-a-ball while facing nearly one fourth of the available balls in a chase of 200 is grounds enough for that. But it came on the back of increasingly iffy returns in international cricket. Dhoni’s ability to keep pace with the T20 game were already in question, but even his One-Day International form left more questions than answers on India’s tour of South Africa.
Logic dictated that Chennai’s auction strategy, coupled with losing Kedar Jadhav and Mitchell Santner, would have resulted in a team out-of-step with the game against sides packed with younger, more ‘in-form’ players.
Pragmatic thinking would have resulted in either a) the ill-conceived protests not being tacked on to the IPL, or even if they were, it being held violence-free; or b) fans not taking the risk of turning up in numbers and still trying to gain tickets by any means available. Pragmatism in fact, might have meant there wouldn’t be 10,000 people turning up just to watch the team practice.
Logic, pragmatism and what ‘should’ be are the province of fantasy when it comes to passionate, emotion-soaked sports fans. So it doesn’t matter that Dhoni the batsman might be on a downward spiral, that the Super Kings team may have more trouble as the IPL goes on because they can’t pull off these back-from-the-dead acts each time, that the city of Chennai might not have been the safest for the reunion with its franchise on a cricket field.
The team won, the captain still retains his Thala status – to be honest that will likely remain lifelong no matter what he does – and the city got the perfect resurrection act.
A sporting god somewhere, had decreed that the Chennai fans deserved that at least.