As Ravindra Jadeja slammed the ball for a six, little did everyone know that it would be the last time Chennai Super Kings would get to celebrate a victory at the Chepauk stadium in the latest iteration of the Indian Premier League. Days later, it was confirmed that CSK will play its remaining home games in Pune. The protests over the Union government’s inaction over sharing of Cauvery river waters had already seen calls for boycott of the match against Kolkata Knight Riders. As the threat perception grew more serious in the police’s eyes, CSK was asked to find a new home.
Ironically, the build-up to this campaign for the ‘Yellow Army’ was dominated by the narrative of return. After spending the last two years in suspension due to team official Gurunath Meiyappan’s involvement in betting, CSK’s comeback was eagerly awaited. Particularly by its loyal fan base which gave short shrift to the accusations of spot-fixing and conflict of interest. Rather, the supporters felt unfairly targeted.
CSK has always prided itself on the manic support it seems to attract. The uncritical adoration has been carefully nurtured by the franchise. Arguably, no other IPL side can boast of such loyalty. Even during the Cauvery protest last week, some agitators spoke of the difficulty in choosing their politics over their favourite team.
CSK itself gives rise to dilemmas as it reflects the contradictions which beset the IPL better than any other side. Like the league, the franchise entertains and succeeds in good measure; but it also replicates the IPL’s tendency to court controversy, leaving a miasmic trail behind.
It began with the charges of auction-fixing (2009) and then moved on to betting and conflict of interest in CSK’s ownership model. Moreover, Chennai has not been an entirely hospitable venue to the IPL. The ban on Sri Lankan players and officials is still fresh in memory while three stands at the Chepauk stadium have remained shut since 2012. Yet, the bumps in the road have not dimmed the enthusiasm of the CSK faithful.
As witnessed during this IPL, the franchise is mindful of playing up this emotional connect. In the lead-up to the tournament, we saw fan videos gain immense traction while CSK itself sought to play up its return to the Chepauk. To embellish its connection with Chennai, the franchise had its players mouth off lines from the trailer of Rajnikanth’s latest film Kaala. In another video, made by fans, supporters borrowed a famous line from the superstar’s hit movie, Kabali – “Tell them we are back,” they roared, with pride.
The engagement continues through social media posts in Tamil by ‘outsiders’ like Harbhajan Singh and Imran Tahir. Embracing the city and its culture is crucial to CSK’s marketing strategy. It does not amount to mere promotion of the franchise, an emotional bond with the team must be drawn as well. Upon his return to CSK, the beloved leader Dhoni was keen to stress that Chennai is his second home and it hurt him to see his side out of action for two years.
In light of the suspension, it was important that there existed a strong link to the past. The core of the CSK, despite the punishment, remains the same, with the exception of R. Ashwin. However, in its drive to maintain the façade, CSK signed many players this season who arguably have their best years behind them; eleven members in the current squad are above the age of 30. As Dhoni’s whirlwhind knock against Kings XI Punjab showed, the skipper and his teammates will fight the vicissitudes of time hard. Even so, their best may not be good enough anymore.
The CSK throwback, though, has been extended to the coaching unit which now consists of two former playing members – Michael Hussey (batting coach) and L. Balaji (bowling). With Stephen Fleming still in charge and Tommy Simsek back as the physiotherapist, the side bears a striking resemblance to the olden days.
But while CSK is rehabilitated through familiarity, difficult questions are swept under the carpet. This phenomenon, of course, is a hallmark of the IPL at large; infamously, in the wake of the spot-fixing scandal, we were presented with the parody spectacle of cricketers and presenters not uttering a word on the controversy. Now, with the return of CSK and Rajasthan Royals, the cricketing establishment has once again moved past breezily from the past. It’s as if the scandal which forced the BCCI to undergo its most dramatic overhaul never happened.
CSK’s fans, though, remain steadfast in their support. While they continue to approach extreme lengths in demonstrating their loyalty to the cause, the franchise has once again left them in a quandary. Although the latest move to play outside Chennai was outside CSK’s control once the police refused to do its job, the fans can now cheer for their heroes only from distance.
The promise of return is unfulfilled for now. CSK may still gladden the hearts of its faithful by finding a way back to days of victorious past; the MS Dhoni-led side last won the IPL in 2011. But the hype around the franchise’s comeback will not be fully realised.
Tell them we’re back. But not in Chennai.
Priyansh is a freelance writer based in New Delhi. He tweets @GarrulousBoy