IPL 2023: Of an upcoming farewell to Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Chepauk, the ultimate fortress

As far as homecomings go, it is hard to look beyond Chennai Super Kings’ return to the field in 2018 after a two-season suspension. That season, Chennai played only one match at home before political issues in the state made them shift base to Pune.

As their team, one where each and every individual in the city believes it is his or hers, returns to their den, there is a palpable atmosphere that is building up for not just the first match against Lucknow Super Giants on Monday, but also for the season. The city is gearing up to give their favourite off-screen hero a mother of all farewells.

MS Dhoni may not have said this season would be his last, but that seems to be the narrative that every fan over here is assuming. Ever since the team landed in the city for the preparations on March 2, the IPL fever has picked up. In tea shops around Chepauk and chilli bhajji joints along the Marina, Dhoni’s future has been the topic of discussion. For a city that usually goes into a celebratory mode for the movie release of big Kollywood stars, Dhoni’s return to Chepauk after four seasons feels like much more and one which everyone wants to be a part of. There are instances where fans who bought tickets online for multiple matches have been accommodating in sharing them with others, just so everyone gets to enjoy the moment.

Such has been the frenzy for tickets, there has been demand from each and every quarter. For days, VIPs in the city, Kollywood stars, politicians, bureaucrats and even higher-ranked police officials have been enquiring for tickets – irrespective of the denomination. The revamped hospitality and corporate boxes were pre-booked weeks in advance. And for the match on May 14 against Kolkata Knight Riders – presumably the last for Dhoni in Chennai — there is even higher demand for tickets that the franchise officials are struggling to meet.

While all of it has been around Dhoni, it is going to be a new experience for a majority of the Chennai Super Kings players as well, who are yet to feature in a match at Chepauk in yellow. Apart from Dhoni, Ravindra Jadeja, Deepak Chahar, Ambati Rayudu and Mitchell Santner, the rest are yet to experience playing at Chepauk, where the fans have been the team’s Impact Player for years, and feed off each other.

Last week around 1,000 fans had turned up to see the team practice, creating an atmosphere that Ruturaj Gaikwad said was just on par with what they experienced at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad where around a 100,000 had turned up for the IPL opener on Friday.

“There are few players who have played here and there are players who are playing here for the first time, including me. Right from the day that it was announced that it’ll be home-away (format), we have been excited to come back here because the fans will be back. Though there were only 1,000 people (for practice games) and there were 100,000 there (Ahmedabad), the noise was equal. Just imagining the full house tomorrow, everyone is excited,” Gaikwad said on Sunday.

Assisting spinners

When it comes to maximising the home advantage in the IPL, few teams do it better than Chennai. With a capacity crowd to back them, they have a history of building the team to their strengths at Chepauk, where it assists spinners more than any other venue. In 2011, when they became the first team to win successive titles, they had turned the venue into a fortress, going unbeaten in the eight matches they played including the final.

And having assembled the squad at the full-fledged player auctions keeping Chepauk’s characteristics in mind, the Super Kings are finally in with a chance to make use of it. Even though mystery spinner Maheesh Theekshana is still unavailable due to international commitments, Chennai would bank on their spinners to get them off the mark on Monday. Apart from Ravindra Jadeja and Mitchell Santner, Moeen Ali and Prashant Solanki could also come into the picture against Lucknow Super Giants.

Despite having a sizable total on board, the bowling proved to be a weak link for Chennai in their first match against Gujarat Titans. Although the South African duo of Dwaine Pretorius and Sisanda Magala – one of them is expected to play in the XI – haven’t joined the team yet, the spinner-friendly surface on offer should give Chennai more familiarity with the conditions.

With an excellent batting depth to fall back on, Chennai’s batting looks a lot stronger than the one that struggled last season in Mumbai. That depth has also allowed the top-order to be aggressive, something Gaikwad said is a freedom to have.

“It does give freedom, but as an opening batsman there’s always the responsibility to give a good start. You may have 11 batsmen or you might have 6 batsmen, but if you give a good start in the first 3-4 overs in the Powerplay, I think the number of batsmen (depth) doesn’t matter a lot. As long as you are giving good starts and converting those starts and you’re batting till 10, 15, 18 overs, you are getting the job done,” Gaikwad said.

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