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When IPL was introduced in 2008 as professional club cricket, just like club football, the question was how would fan loyalty build for a team that may not even have local players. To its credit, Chennai Super Kings (CSK) managed to command the loyalty of cricket fans in Tamil Nadu, likely more than other teams in their cities. MS Dhoni is called Thala and Suresh Raina Chinna Thala — Boss and Junior Boss in Tamil. The record shows that barring a few players such as R Ashwin in the early days and Palani Amarnath, fan loyalty has built despite CSK not backing Tamil or Tamil Nadu players in particular in the following years.

India Cements, the owner of CSK, has had a long legacy of cricket management. Former India captain, off spinner and later umpire, S Venkataraghavan was an India Cements man.

The India Cements team is a well-known First Division League team. It has boasted of stars including L Sivaramakrishnan and VB Chandrasekar. Rahul Dravid has played for India Cements at Guru Nanak College grounds.

When IPL was mooted after India won the T20 World Cup, each city-based team had a cricket star icon attached to it. Kolkata had Saurav Ganguly, Mumbai had Sachin Tendulkar, Hyderabad had VVS Laxman and so on. Chennai did not have any star of that stature from Tamil Nadu. While Sehwag was being considered as the CSK mascot, VB Chandrasekar convinced N Srinivasan to pick MS Dhoni instead. The reasoning was that Dhoni was the total package and that his sangfroid and charisma would get full play on TV screens since he kept wickets as well as batted.

And sure enough, CSK hit pay dirt with Dhoni.

In the first season when CSK lost the finals to Rajasthan Royals captained by Shane Warne, the team had many domestic players. Abhinav Mukund, Vidyut Sivaramakrishnan, K Srikkanth’s son Aniruddha Srikkanth, L Balaji and R Ashwin were there, and so were Selvam Sureshkumar, Arun Karthik and Badrinath. Balaji had gone through a slump in international and domestic cricket due to injuries, and CSK gave him an opportunity for a comeback through IPL.

Next year, in South Africa, where IPL moved owing to the parliamentary elections being held in India, Ashwin, Murali Vijay and Balaji from Tamil Nadu excelled, which paved the way for their entry into the Indian team whereas Vidyut, Aniruddha and Arun Karthik did not. This was an important outing for Ashwin.

When IPL was mooted after India won the T20 World Cup, each city-based team had a cricket star icon attached to it. Kolkata had Saurav Ganguly, Mumbai had Sachin Tendulkar, Hyderabad had VVS Laxman and so on. Chennai did not have any star of that stature from Tamil Nadu. Dhoni was picked, as his sangfroid and charisma would make him a great mascot.

In 2010, when CSK won the IPL with Murali Vijay, Aniruddha and Chandrasekar Ganapathy, Balaji had been part of the team. Hemang Badani, by then 34 years old, got an IPL entry even as he was exiting top-level cricket. Balaji, Badrinath, Ashwin and Murali Vijay got good chances and proved their mettle. Others didn’t. In 2010-11, Badrinath, a seasoned state-level player, got into the Indian team, which could be attributed to his CSK tenure. Playing with Dhoni likely helped since MS was the Indian captain, too. Similarly, having won Dhoni’s confidence, Ashwin was selected for the 2011 World Cup despite the presence of Harbhajan Singh. If Ashwin had played for another team, he may not have been noticed as much by Dhoni and may not have been selected.

Murali Vijay got opportunities in the national team whenever Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir were not playing. L Balaji, who debuted in the Indian team in 2003-04 but had to change his action and had slowed down due to injuries, went through a slump before CSK gave him a chance to get back to the top level. The T20 World Cup in 2012 was a high mark of his career. Then he moved to Kolkata Knight Riders where he performed reasonably and retired.

2011 was a double dhamaka for Dhoni with a World Cup win that was quickly followed by a CSK win. Yo Mahesh, Ganapathy Vignesh, Abhinav Mukund and Aniruddha were from Tamil Nadu. KM Asif, originally from Kerala, was also part of the team. Badrinath and Murali Vijay did much better that year in IPL.

KKR derailed CSK’s hattrick plans in 2012. Besides Murali Vijay, Badrinath, Abhinav, Ganapathy Vignesh, Yo Mahesh and Ashwin, a relatively unknown K Vasudeva Das was a part of the team.

2013 was a problem year for CSK. The betting scandal engulfed the owner and cast a shadow on the management. Baba Aparajith was a Tamil Nadu player in that team. Vijayshankar came to CSK while Ashwin and R Karthikeyan were already there. Balaji had left for KKR although Murali Vijay was very much in CSK. CSK lost to Mumbai Indians in the final.

It was a forgettable year though. Reputations and careers of a few were destroyed.

Next year, IPL moved in part to UAE due to the Lok Sabha elections. The good experience there led to IPL moving to the Persian Gulf during the lockdown years 2020 and 2021 as well. But 2014 was a bad year for CSK. Only Aparajith, Ashwin and Vijayshankar were Tamil Nadu players but they had trouble adapting to the conditions in the UAE. CSK did not figure in the finals.

Next year, there was only Aparajith and Ashwin from Tamil Nadu.

A feature of CSK is that while they are consistent and stake their spot in the semi-finals as a matter of right, they seem to falter in the bigger matches. MI, however, have trouble reaching the semi-finals but then somehow amp up their big match temperament and do better. CSK lost the finals in 2008, 12, 13 and 15.

In 2016 and 2017 CSK faced a suspension over match-fixing charges. The team came back into the IPL in 2018. That year IPL matches could not be held in Chennai as tempers were running high among the public over Tamil Nadu’s dispute with Karnataka over sharing of Cauvery rivers waters.

But 2018 was their comeback year. Amazon made a documentary on CSK called Roar of the Lions and Dhoni himself talked about how their fan base had grown bigger when they were down and out and players had shifted to other teams. Their win that year was a big treat for their fans. But the only Tamils in that team were Murali Vijay and N Jagadeesan who was mostly on the bench.

L Balaji, who debuted in the Indian team in 2003-04, but had to change his action and had slowed down due to injuries, went through a slump before CSK gave him a chance to get back to the top level. The T20 World Cup in 2012 was a high mark of his career. Then he moved to Kolkata Knight Riders where he performed reasonably and retired.

In 2019, CSK again lost in the finals to MI. The infamous Dhoni runout was a predecessor to the one in the World Cup later which signaled the end to India’s chances. That year, Murali Vijay who had gone elsewhere had returned. Jagadeesan was still there.

2020 was CSK’s worst year. Youngsters were not given enough opportunities, and Dhoni raised a ruckus saying youngsters lacked spirit. This was taken as a reference to players from Tamil Nadu too. Kedar Jadav lost a match with slow batting and was pilloried. Dhoni himself was criticised for slow scoring. Raina left the team, apparently due to a tiff with the team management. N Srinivasan talked about egos of prima donnas. Things couldn’t have been worse for CSK.

Jagadeesan was given a few opportunities. He scored some 30 runs but didn’t score a 50, which meant he did not quite convince the leadership. That was the year the team seemed to put extraordinary faith in Rituraj Gaikwad. N Srinivasan himself said it.

Even as Jagadeesan was ignored, Rituraj was given several chances. As CSK lost its way and was playing more for pride, Rituraj showed his talent. Next year, he and Faf Du Plessis engineered a win for CSK, with which Rituraj became a star while Jagadeesan continued to be on the sidelines. Sai Kishore from Tamil Nadu was on the benches while Raina performed poorly that year.

This year, Raina was not considered, and so he was not picked in the auction citing fitness, and that he was not in the scheme of things for the future of the team.

CSK has run into another controversy too by selecting M Theekshana, a Sri Lankan player.

Jagadeesan and Hari Nishanth could get a few chances this year, but they could be kept on the bench too.

If CSK had wanted it, it could have picked a few more players from Tamil Nadu even if only for the dugout—for the sake of exposure. It did not choose to bid higher for Shahrukh Khan although the team had the money. Some Rs 2 crore of CSK funds was lying unused after the auction.

(S Dinesh is a cricket analyst)


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