Dhoni’s Chennai homecoming

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Chennai: India's MS Dhoni and Hardik Pandya run between the wickets during the first India-Australia One Day International (ODI) cricket match being played at the M A Chidhambaram stadium in Chennai on Sunday. PTI Photo by R Senthil Kumar(PTI9_17_2017_000132B)

It was the sixth over of India’s innings. Manish Pandey had become the third victim of the early Nathan Coulter-Nile hostility, leading to collective shrugs from all around. But the half-full Chepauk suddenly realised what that meant. The tone changed, the noise level went up a notch as Pandey trudged back. It meant it was time for MS Dhoni. Eyes were cast expectantly towards the Indian dressing room. The door was pushed open and a batsman emerged. The chants hit a new decibel level before going hollow suddenly – Kedar Jadhav was India’s No. 5 for the day.

For the next half an hour they cheered for Rohit Sharma and Kedar. While they yearned for a reunion with their favourite son of the soil, they also saw the bigger picture of the contest at hand. And then Rohit was dismissed. This time there was silence – for Rohit’s exit and in anticipation of the player who could walk out at No.6. They were bracing themselves for another bluff via Hardik Pandya’s emergence from behind the door. But the wait had ended.

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Only two months ago, the former skipper donned his CSK jersey and indulged in a six-hitting competition at the start of the TNPL, but Sunday evening was different. Sunday night was real reintroduction of the symbiotic relationship between a cricketing giant and the city that has grown to love him the most over the last decade.

A lot has changed since Dhoni’s last competitive appearance in Chennai back in October 2015. The batting force that the city was used to cheering for had already been on a decline by then, and has only continued along that same downward path. Positive spurts came about once in a while, but never enough to fully establish his turning-the-corner skills. Bowlers found ways to tie him down to the crease and nullify his end-overs impact and thereby his biggest USP. In a nutshell, Dhoni wasn’t the player that Chepauk grew to adore, anymore.

But conventional wisdom seldom makes its way past the security check in stadiums. For the fans who turned up, it was about watching Dhoni grace the ground with his presence again, and even the smallest of contribution was going to be met with the most thunderous applause.

The 36-year-old walked out to chants of ‘MSD, MSD’ and ‘CSK, CSK’. The half-capacity crowd found their connect with their hero off the very first ball he faced. Dhoni cut a Zampa delivery straight to David Warner at backward point, who unprecedentedly, let it go through his legs. A rapturous cheer ensued. The love-affair was well and truly back on.
Steve Smith wasn’t one to be sucked into the sudden emotional mood in the middle. He meant business and threw the ball to Pat Cummins in the 18th over. ‘Let’s see what your hero can do against express pace’ was perhaps the idea for the Australian skipper. As he’d guessed, and the crowd would find out, there wasn’t much Dhoni could. The situation demanded calm and Dhoni had abundance of it to offer.
Dhoni’s was a graft of a very high order, which didn’t just pull India out of trouble at the start, but also allowed Hardik to settle down and eventually turn the tide with his six-hitting binge towards the end. Soon enough Hardik was the more dominating partner in the alliance, as Dhoni kept turning the strike over.
When the 23-year-old No. 7 batsman exited the stage for a 66-ball 83 in the 41st over to a huge round of applause, there came an opportunity for a late Dhoni flourish. But it wasn’t until the 44th over, and the 67th ball of his innings, that Dhoni hit his first boundary – a top-edge to the fine leg fence off Coulter-Nile. After playing eight more balls, he reached his 100th international half-century, having run 33 singles for it.
There were several moments, particularly during the second half of Hardik’s stay in the middle, when Chepauk should’ve been at its vociferous best. But the moment of the night for them came in the 48th over, when Dhoni stepped out and carved a brutal six over the extra cover fence. Flags were waved, his name chanted and one’s money’s worth earned.
The Chepauk crowd lived through the entirety of his 88-ball stay with full earnestness. They gasped when Kedar nearly sold Dhoni down the river, they jeered at Zampa’s taunt, they sank in their seats at near misses and rose to their feet at every chance. The Chepauk may have filled up for a special, but gladly stayed back for the grind – all the while chanting away like old times.

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