On Tuesday, the Chepauk stadium in Chennai was a bustling cauldron of emotions. There were widespread protests all over the city calling for the boycott of Indian Premier League matches in Chennai. However, away from the chaos, Sam Billings made CSK's homecoming special with a blistering knock of 56 off 23 balls to make it a memorable night for the fans who had taken the efforts to enter the stadium.
Chennai Super Kings were making a return to the league after a period of two years. This was their first-ever home game in 1066 days and the fans were in full attendance waiting to cheer for their favourite team.
However, the grim atmosphere outside the MA Chidambaram stadium threatened to slither in and dampen the spirits of the thousands of fans who had turned up to support the home side.
With a lot of distractions just a few hundred metres from the 22-yard-pitch at the centre, the match against Kolkata Knight Riders had a delayed start owing to officials reaching the stadium a bit late after having to make their way through the vociferous protesters.
CSK skipper MS Dhoni flipped the coin, decided to go against the regular tide in Chennai pitches and chose to bowl first after winning the toss.
With Kedar Jadhav ruled out of the rest of IPL and Mark Wood having a disappointing outing at Wankhede, Shardul Thakur and Billings were named in the starting XI.
Deepak Chahar kick-started the proceedings and after receiving a belting from KKR openers Chris Lynn and Sunil Narine never returned to take a run-up in his second match in yellow.
Though Dhoni’s ploy of bringing spinners into the attack did result in a couple of wickets, the bowlers continued to leak runs as every batsman walking in smashed the ball all over the park.
The ninth and tenth overs of the first innings were dramatic as three wickets in the span of 12 balls brought back the voice of a vociferous crowd in Chennai.
Kolkata were 89/5 at halfway mark and the Chennai outfit would have felt a surge of confidence about restricting the total to not more than 160. Then, Andre Russell walked in.
When he finally walked back at the end of 20 overs, his lusty blows had set Chennai a target of 202. With every shot off the blade of Russell, the ear-piercing cheers from the Chennai audience slowly drained into a deafening silence.
The Chennai crowds expected fireworks and that is exactly what was delivered, but not by a player in yellow, but a player from West Indies who gave the isolated drops of purple in the sea of yellow, a reason to shout their throats hoarse.
Russell smashed 11 sixes and a four in his 36-ball 88 and played a major role in KKR crossing the 200-run mark. The Knight Riders scored a massive 79 runs in the final five overs.
CSK needed 203 to ensure their homecoming was a success and Ambati Rayudu, a surprise choice for an opener especially with Billings in the side, joined Shane Watson to give a rollicking start to the Chennai chase.
Though Watson holed out in the last over of powerplay, CSK scored 75 in the first six and the foundation was laid for the batsmen to consolidate the chase.
And consolidate they did with a measured innings from skipper Dhoni on one end and a blistering knock from Billings at the other. Dhoni’s innings of 25 off 28 balls might seem like a laboured effort that wasted precious deliveries in the middle overs but Billings who scored a quick-fire half-century said that the calmness in his skipper rubbed off on him.
Billings’ innings was the exact antidote Chennai needed to counteract the Russell onslaught earlier. The most important facet of CSK’s innings was that they never let the asking rate escalate.
However, after a tight 19th over bowled by Tom Curran, where CSK lost the all-important wicket of Billings, the situation became similar to the one in Wankhede on 7 April, where the in-form batsman departed in the penultimate over and the responsibility of seeing the team past the finish line fell on the new batsman.
If in the Wankhede match, Bravo’s departure brought in Jadhav, in Chepauk, the wicket of Billings brought loud cheers from the already raucous Chennai crowd as Bravo made his way into the ground.
It was the last over and CSK required 17 runs. Bravo, Jadeja were in the middle and KKR skipper Dinesh Karthik tossed the ball to Vinay Kumar for the final over.
The last time Chennai chased down 200 in the MA Chidambaram stadium, it was against the Royal Challengers Bangalore in 2012. Six years later, there were five players from that match being a part of the clash on Thursday.
Four of them — Dhoni, Suresh Raina, Dwayne Bravo, Ravindra Jadeja — were from Chennai Super Kings and the other one was a bowler who turned up for RCB then and KKR now — Vinay Kumar.
The similarity was uncanny. In 2012, against RCB, Bravo was on strike against Kumar, and CSK needed 15 off the final six balls.
Kumar bowled a no-ball during both the matches that were dispatched to the boundary by Bravo. And during both those chases, it was Jadeja who smashed the ball over the boundary to bring about a memorable five-wicket victory for Chennai.
It was heartbreak for Kumar as he faced the ignominy of being the bowler who let CSK pull off a 200-plus chase in a T20 match... again.
It was also the fifth straight match in this edition of the IPL when the team batting second won and the Chepauk stadium, famously termed as Lion’s den, roared loudly to send ripples in the Marina beach when Jadeja smashed Kumar for a six over long on.
In two matches, CSK showed what the league missed over the past two years.
With all the hype and hoopla about the issues surrounding the match, the Dhoni-led side needed an inspiring win to keep the fans excited about the IPL despite all that was happening outside the scope of cricket.
There might not be answers to questions like “Will the protests around scheduling of IPL in Chennai die out before the next match?”
But, one thing is for sure that when Chennai Super Kings take on Rajasthan Royals on 20 April at the MA Chidambaram Stadium, the sea of yellow that braved the violence and hostility to be witness to one of the best chases in IPL, will be in full attendance once again to get ready and Whistle Podu(blow whistle)