IPL 2023: Sound of familiar music returns to Chepauk

Led by MS Dhoni, four-time champions last played at home when they met Mumbai Indians in the first Qualifier on May 7, 2019  
All eyes will be on MS Dhoni when CSK play their first match of this season's IPL in Chennai on Monday. (Photo | Ashwin Prasath)
All eyes will be on MS Dhoni when CSK play their first match of this season's IPL in Chennai on Monday. (Photo | Ashwin Prasath)

CHENNAI: Chennai has many familiar rhythms that pairs with the months/seasons. Pleasant mornings in December and January? 'Tis the season for some Carnatic music. Soul-shattering heat coupled with water-bottle becoming a mandatory item in your bag? April to September (you could argue this is pretty much through the year). Larger than life cut-outs adorning cinema complexes? A big-budget movie is around the corner. Weather bulletins carrying a menacing tone? October. Or November.      

From 2008 till 2015, the city added another emotion to its calendar. The start of the summer became palatable as that meant it was Chennai Super Kings season. The team became an ornament in a city whose craze for cricket was only matched by three other things beginning with the same letter (carnatic, cinema and coffee). For the majority of the eight years from 2008, Chepauk had an ethereal — not only because the lights were on whenever the franchise was in town — glow to it for three months between March and May.

That light was switched off for the next two seasons following a ban. In 2018, after the side came back after the two year suspension, the gates were again locked after Cauvery protests in the city (the Stadium wasn't immune to the protests as one match against Kolkata Knight Riders witnessed unsavoury scenes). Normalcy was restored in 2019 before the world turned upside down thanks to Covid a year later.

Chennai's last match at home was the first Qualifier against Mumbai on May 7, 2019. Since then, they, like the other franchises in the league, have tried to make do. It will change on Monday when MS Dhoni — one of the franchise's few remaining links between 2008 and now on the playing side — walks out for the toss against Lucknow Super Giants.

With Monday's match being one of only three home games for Chennai in the first half of the campaign, it's imperative they begin well. Even otherwise, its importance cannot be understated because the franchise and the MA Chidambaram Stadium is like comfort food; rasam rice and potatoes on a rainy day. Home advantage is a given, almost essential, in an home-and-away format but, even by those standards, this team is like a gold standard.

The strips suit their brand of spinners; low, slow and ideally suited to take games deep. In that context, the likes of Mark Wood — who picked a five-for in Lucknow's first match — will have to generate more pace through the air if he's to remain as effective off the surface.

Eyes on captain
One player who will hope for fewer returns for Wood is Dhoni for whom this is an important match, even in the context of this season. In what is likely to be an unofficial tour, he remains an integral cog in the CSK wheel. But he has to pull his weight, especially after a slightly below-par 2022 in the desert.  
Having won four titles with the team in Yellow, it's safe to say the 41-year-old has earned enough goodwill to decide when to 'exit stage left'. Arguably, he had picked his moment in 2022 when Ravindra Jadeja was handed the armband. By the time the season finished, though, Dhoni was back marshalling the troops.  

One could see the reasons behind the management going back to Dhoni when they might have been tempted by the idea of looking towards the future like they did in 2008 when they eschewed the idea of an icon player before the player auction. "What you need to remember is (almost) every other team in that auction had an icon player," CSK official, Kasi Viswanathan, had told this daily in 2020. "When we went for him, we were fairly sure he would become an icon. He had already captained India to the World T20 title and we were confident that he would go on to be one of the legends."

CSK's predictions turned out to be right. The former India captain hasn't needed to pay for a beer in a long time in these parts. But he's playing the role of a specialist captain who comes in at No. 7 or No. 8. While he does retain that ability to hit boundaries at the death, certain limits have cropped up in his game (hitting the spinners, for example) over time.

It's possible to imagine Ben Stokes being asked to take over the captaincy from next season but in the immediate future, Dhoni will again have to show what made him such a successful captain. The art of ending up on the right side of high-stakes poker almost every single time. You imagine it will have to be this way if the franchise is to be successful this year; their figurehead playing some of his greatest hits on a loop.

And a capacity crowd — all stands of the Stadium will be open to watch their team for the first time in over a decade — will like nothing more than that. "The practice game was good preparation for the opening game," said opener Ruturaj Gaikwad. "Though there were only 1000 people and there were 100,000 there (Ahmedabad), the noise levels were the same. Just imagining a full house tomorrow (Monday), everyone is excited.   That familiar sound of the Chidambaram Stadium will return.    

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The New Indian Express