CHENNAI: No fans of any other franchise worship their leader as much as Chennai Super Kings' do. In the early days of IPL, Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly received similar kinds of reception.
But for Chennai fans, their love isn't just limited to skipper MS Dhoni. It extends to Suresh Raina — who has been with the team for all seasons — too.
So much so that when Dhoni was started being called Thala, Raina became their Chinna Thala (deputy). Even when the skipper misses a game due to illness, Raina is the automatic pick to captain them, despite the likes of international leaders in Faf du Plessis and Dwayne Bravo.
For someone who is seen as a potential successor to Dhoni in the yellow jersey, this season hardly witnessed noteworthy innings from the southpaw. That he has played a pivotal role in keeping the ship steady through the years — crossed the 400-run mark in nine of the 10 seasons — is a well-known fact. But this season, Raina's consistency has flailed; he was expected to do a lot more than just one fifty in 12 innings.
There were serious doubts over his form, with him struggling to convert starts. On Wednesday against Delhi Capitals, Chepauk may have regained some hope, with the Raina of old making a 37-ball 59.
In contrast to their title-winning run last year, the hosts have been guilty of slow starts: they've gone at only 6.4 runs per over in the powerplay. That trend continued in their last home game, on Wednesday, and they needed someone to up the ante. It was Raina who provided that impetus.
Chennai crawled to 7/1 in four overs. That was remedied a bit to 27/1 in the first six, but they'd lost Shane Watson, who struggled his way to a nine-ball duck.
Walking in to thunderous applause that's mostly reserved for Dhoni, Raina made his intentions clear from the very first delivery. He targeted left-arm spinner J Suchith and seamer Chris Morris, hitting them for a flurry of boundaries.
Raina's 37th IPL fifty consisted of eight boundaries and a six, a majority of which came off the middle of his bat. Even as Du Plessis consumed 19 dots in his 41 off 39, the southpaw kept the scorecard ticking by absorbing the pressure. It is this kind of innings that made Raina an invaluable IPL asset.
Though a playoff berth has already been secured, the match was crucial for Chennai to hold on to their top-two spot.
Dhoni did a usual Dhoni at the death; an unbeaten 44 off 22 to help the team reach a very improbable 179/4. But it was Raina who rescued the team after early jitters on Wednesday night, laying the platform for his Thala's eventual onslaught.