When the Indian Premier League started, one of the biggest question marks on its success was the question of fans' loyalty to the clubs. Before auctions for Season 1, five players were classified as icons and did not enter the auctions. Sachin Tendulkar, Saurav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, Yuvraj Singh and Virender Sehwag played for the franchise representing their hometown in an attempt to garner fans' support.
Most teams aggressively went after local players during the auctions too: Royal Challengers, for example, had 14 Indian players on their roster in 2008. Out of these, ten played for the state of Karnataka. After all, why would fans cheer for a team that doesn't have people from their state, right?
Nothing unites India like cricket.
As IPL matured, franchises realised that fans would support their teams and not just their players. For fans, it didn't matter if a player spoke their language, as long as he wore their jersey with pride. Over the years Chris Gayle and AB de Villiers enjoyed more chanting from the stands in Bangalore than any local born player ever would.
But if there is one player who adopted the fans and their city as much as the fan adopted him, it is MS Dhoni. In a country where the north-south cultural divide is so prominent and so relatable that it becomes the subject matter of a book/movie like Two States, here was Dhoni, a guy from the rustic outbacks of Jharkhand representing the Tamil bastion of Chennai. The way Chennai made Dhoni one of its own, even anointing him with a sobriquet of 'Thala', or the leader, is one of the most heartwarming stories of IPL.
It wasn't just a one-sided love affair. Dhoni carried his cricket gear with him to a different club when Chennai Super Kings were suspended for two years, but his heart stayed at Chepauk. When asked about the move, Dhoni was almost unsportsmanlike in his candidness, "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."
Chennai wasn't just a club he played for; it became a home for him.
Professional athletes, if often appears, would be happy to play for the club that pays them the fattest pay cheque, but there are enough exceptions to that perception. Steven Gerrard was one of the most sought-after footballers in 2005 after his team Liverpool won the Champions Trophy defeating AC Milan in an epic coming-from-behind battle. The decision to stay at Anfield instead of moving to richer pastures like Stamford Bridge, the home of Chelsea, was an emotional one.
But as his teammate, Jamie Carragher summarised, "The satisfaction of one title with Liverpool, no matter how long it took, would always eclipse three or four at Stamford Bridge".
It isn't just about how many titles you win; it's about how you feel after winning them. For Dhoni, he'd rather play hard and lose in a CSK jersey than winning a title for another franchise, as long as he can control, of course. End of the day, he would put his head down as a professional and toil as hard as he can for whichever team he is playing.
There is no doubt that Dhoni gave it his all for the Pune franchise he represented in 2016 and 2017. He suffered a dip in his form in 2017, and it showed up on his IPL record that year too, but it wasn't from lack of commitment.
There was some controversy when Dhoni was dropped from captaincy in 2017 and later when his wife posted a picture on Instagram wearing a CSK helmet even as the IPL season was underway.
But if there was any resentment for the team or its owners in Dhoni's heart, then he never showed it in the field. Once IPL was over though, he didn't waste much time in revealing where his heart lied in a not-so-subtle message via Instagram that showed him wearing the famous Chennai Number 7 jersey.
Dhoni was always coming back to Chennai.
Cricketers often enjoy love affairs with certain cities and grounds. VVS Laxman didn't belong to Kolkata, but the city and the ground at Eden Garden brought the best out of him. Chennai had a similar effect on Dhoni. He hasn't just played his best IPL innings at Chennai; his defining Test innings also came at the same ground. His 224 at Chennai against Australia in 2013 rescued India from a difficult position in the Test match and set the tone for the series that India eventually won four-nil.
Cricket, or for that matter any sport, is decided based on hard numbers. Teams these days invariably have an expert whose only job is to crunch data to find out the best players and best strategies to give themselves a higher percentage of winning.
And while winning is everything, or as some say the only thing, in sport, fans also look for something more than winning percentages and bragging rights. They seek a team that represents them and their values. They love players who they can be proud of calling their own. The players, on their part, perform at their peak when they feel they aren't just playing for themselves but for something more significant. Something the whole team can rally behind. It could be a baggy green cap or a yellow jersey. Former New Zealand captain, Brendon McCullum, summarised it beautifully in his MCC speech when he talked about how his team found their identity, "Our followers know that New Zealand won't win every game or be the world's best team, but I think they are able to look at the team as a representation of our culture."
Having Dhoni back in the team was essential for healing the fans’ pain at missing out for the last two seasons. Dhoni is most likely to be the captain of the team too. But even if he is not, and the captaincy is handed over to someone like Suresh Raina, Dhoni will still be in a leadership role like he is in Team India even after the captaincy was taken over by Virat Kohli. There are many things to look forward to in this year’s IPL, but watching Thala Dhoni back in his elements and seeing the Chennai crowd going "Whistle Podu" over him could be the experience that tops it all.