“It was his (MS Dhoni's) idea to open the stands for the fans (to watch the practice sessions),” Chennai Super Kings manager Russell Radhakrishnan is heard saying in a video after the team’s pre-IPL practice session attracted a house full of fans at the MA Chidambaram Stadium.
See that love. This is Pure Passion !! This is madness!!. This is emotions.
Dear @CMOTamilNadu @OfficeOfOPS Care to speed up the clearance of the closed stands?? Dont hurt the fans in delays. Let 12000 more fans live their dreams !!
Fans RT & Please support the #WhistlePoduArmy https://t.co/ytkDxq36mX
— Whistle Podu Army - CSK Fan Club (@CSKFansOfficial) March 28, 2018
The carnival that is the Indian Premier League (IPL) is yet to begin, but Chennai, from the streets of T Nagar to the famous Marina Beach, is already roaring. The return of the much-adored franchise is the theme of the 11th edition of the IPL and no group is more excited than their vehement, passionate fan club, the Whistle Podu Army.
“Chennai Super Kings are back and the IPL gets more energy from it than the team in itself,” says Prabhu Damodaran, co-founder of the Whistle Podu Army, which is quickly turning into the one of the most-loved fan clubs in the IPL.
The fan club initially started out as a handful of Chennai Super Kings fans but quickly gained traction. The fan base expanded with Saravanan Hari, one of the co-founders and popularly known as Chennai Super Kings’ super fan, and Damodaran forging a group of like-minded fans.
“We (Hari and Damodaran) knew each other since 2013 and started going to matches together as a group. We then thought of registering and taking it to the next level. I travel from Coimbatore, where I stay, to Chennai to watch matches, around 500 km,” Damodaran says, recalling how it all began.
The gala IPL mostly thrives on fans who adore and follow a particular player. But Chennai seems to have built a group of ardent fans who would be with the team through crests and troughs.
“I would say very few franchises have built a strong fan base like Chennai Super Kings. Mumbai and Kolkata are there but the others switch allegiance based on their favourite player. Retaining a core group of players which hasn't changed over the years has helped,” says Damodaran.
But does that mean the Whistle Podu Army wouldn't diminish in number if their thala (head) Dhoni wasn't in the side?
“Even if Dhoni wasn't retained or if all players had gone to auction and Dhoni was picked by some other team, I would say at least 60-70 per cent of the fans would have stayed loyal. Of course, they would be disappointed but two years down the lane we can't expect MS (Dhoni) to keep playing. There will be a point where Dhoni won't be there and CSK has to exist. The franchise has made a really good connect with the fans which makes them hooked to CSK rather than Dhoni alone,” Damodaran opines while acknowledging that Dhoni's presence brings a “totally different atmosphere”.
The manner in which the franchise has managed to connect with the fans is evident in the strong support they garnered even during the two years they were banned from the IPL. Obviously, the franchise's absence was a tragedy for the Whistle Podu Army and several fans were in tears at the very thought of parting with their favourite players and team without really knowing when and if they would be back. “It felt like a loss in the family,” says Damodaran.
“We felt handicapped but then we decided to keep the group together. We did a lot of fan initiatives which kept the franchise burning even when they weren't a part of the IPL. We were doing campaigns for Dhoni and #Whistlepodu was trending for the first day of IPL last year,” the proud CSK fan says, explaining how their fan club kept the franchise flying high even during its most trying time.
As a registered club, the Whistle Podu Army wanted to give back to the society. After all, the IPL lasts a mere two months but with a bigger picture in mind, the fan club and its members ardently expanded their fan base and earned respect with their work for the society.
“Offline, we wanted to give back to the society. On Dhoni's birthday last year, we went to an orphanage in Anna Nagar, pulled in funds from a few fans and gave them sports equipments. The group spent time with the handicapped children, playing with them, entertaining them. People don't spend time with these kids and it felt good to see them happy. In the afternoon, we visited an old age home, gave them essentials like rice which would be useful to them. This continues for most player's birthdays.
“(In) 2016 we had also conducted a blood donation camp where only 20-30 people turned up. (In) 2017 the numbers improved and we did at multiple places, even Kolkata, where the turnout was commendable,” Prabhu explains. “We wanted to make a difference to the society unlike other fan clubs. We have around 300 members, of which at least 50-75 come for social activities.”
Now, even with CSK returning, the social commitments would continue but the upcoming couple of months would be dedicated to watching matches and rooting for their favourite team. The frenzied fan base has meant that CSK have built a fortress at their home ground in Chepauk, where they boast of a win percentage of 67.44. The franchise has qualified for the playoffs in all eight seasons they were part of the league, grabbing the IPL title twice and the Champions League twice.
The enthusiasm is reflected in the city which has already turned yellow to welcome their players. There are bikes, buses and cars soaked in yellow paint much akin to super fan, Hari, who painstakingly smears paint all over himself for hours and needs a further few hours to remove it.
— Chennai Super Kings (@ChennaiIPL) April 4, 2018
“Right from a small kid to a 70-year-old man, everybody are curious to know the playing XI and the proceedings in the match. They are all keen to follow their team. We have finalised a few anthems and chants for players which will be mixed with some Tamil music,” Damodaran says, with palpable excitement in his voice.
The tagline for the season is #yellove, which really says everything you need to know about the quotient CSK have with their fanatic fan base led by the Whistle Podu Army. As the 11th edition of the IPL comes to Chennai, expect the stadium to bleed yellow, or should we say be ready for yellove?