Varun Shetty in Chennai (March 22, 2019)


“Dhoni… Dhoni, Dhoni! Dhoni!” a man shrieks. He isn’t visible when the video begins, and is likely somewhere behind the backpedalling cameraperson, in the MCC enclosure’s vicinity. This is the part of the stadium where people would have first spotted MS Dhoni walking out from behind the sightscreen, two bats in his right hand, and a helmet tucked under his left wrist. Walking out with him is a man, also carrying two bats, who is assisting him. Four bats in two right hands, moving steadily away from our shrieker.

By now, Dhoni’s on the field, and everyone has seen him. That’s nearly 12,000 people at the MA Chidambaram Stadium, gathered to watch Chennai Super Kings train.

You know the rest. Everyone’s seen it. THAT video.

There probably isn’t a ground in India where Dhoni wouldn’t be welcomed with such fervour. It’s happened consistently for over a decade for India’s most successful captain, whose cult status preceded his more rational hairstyles. The carefree cannon in the middle order, the Joginder Sharma evangelist, the master chaser, one of the greatest ODI players ever, and the captain who sealed a World Cup with a six. At each of these checkpoints, Dhoni had India standing up and applauding.

Even in a phase of his career where mortality is being thrust onto him, in a year many expect to be his last in India’s blue, he can still walk into stadiums across the country and set them alight.

What was different on Thursday, then?

For one, the inimitable Super Kings whistle. More significantly: how long the welcome lasted, for nearly a minute-and-a-half, whistles and all, almost as if it were his last game there.

Dhoni and the Super Kings have only played one match in the city in the last three years.

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Last year, returning for the first time after serving a two-year suspension, Super Kings took an open-top bus to their first training session. It’s not common for IPL teams to have bus parades. Logistically, it is hard to put together. There’s also a tiny chance it could backfire. When Chelsea paraded their 2014-15 English Premier League title, they were widely mocked for the “tens of fans” that showed up.

But it would almost have been a betrayal if Super Kings hadn’t put it together. And just as much of a betrayal if no one showed up. Sriram, the president of Whistle Podu Army, Super Kings’ official fan club, remembers the day.

“No one was aware of the open bus journey,” he says. “But when the bus started from the hotel, the roads were jammed. And there was an open practice session. They announced [that] in the evening and within an hour, before the team came, all the stands got filled.

“This time the craziness has increased. One hour before, the stands were filled and it was jam-packed for a practice match. That’s the craziness of our fans.”

Progressively bigger crowds watched the practice sessions in the days following the bus parade, hitting 10,000 by the eve of Super Kings’ first home game. The video of Dhoni walking into the ground to raucous cheering earlier this week was perhaps the first official documentation on social media, but filling out the stands is routine for Super Kings training sessions. You can count on it.

“Yeah!” says Chockalingam “Chocka” S with a laugh. Chocka’s agency, OPN, handles Super Kings’ social media. “In a way, we know. Because they just love the team. We know they will come. We are in touch with the fans and we know for sure.”

There’s a good basis for that assumption, but much more than just crazy love had showed up to that bus parade. To some fans, like Sriram, there was more to it.

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Whistle Podu Army is a registered entity under the Society of Registrars, and was founded in January 2016, shortly after Super Kings were suspended. The fans had begun a Save CSK campaign outside the stadium to protest the suspension. They wanted their team back, but the only way to credibly get the BCCI’s attention was to file a petition as a registered entity.

“We went to Mumbai, Saravanan [Hari, a prominent fan visible at most Super Kings matches, yellow face-paint and all] and a few core fans, and submitted the petition to Rajiv Shukla [the then chairman of the IPL governing council]. They said they will look into it, but unfortunately we were still suspended,” Sriram says.

It’s not a battle they were ever going to win, but there was genuine belief among the fans that they could help their beloved team out against strong legal arguments. It says something of their dedication – some would say naivete – that a small group would gather numbers online and offline with the trust that they could turn corruption charges around. It began with 14 officially registered members.

Having opened up registrations this year, they expect that number to grow. When ESPNcricinfo first contacted Sriram, his team was putting together 600 welcome packages for new members.

These are paying members with official membership, a small portion of the cumulative 782,000 fans the Whistle Podu Army has across the three major social media platforms.

Some of them were at that parade, but were wary ahead of the first game. Super Kings chased down 203 against Kolkata Knight Riders, a blockbuster return for a blockbuster team, but the drama surrounding them hadn’t ended.

In the days leading up to the match, local political groups had called for an IPL boycott in Chennai until the long-standing Cauvery water dispute with neighbouring state Karnataka was resolved. During the match, shoes were flung at Ravindra Jadeja and Faf du Plessis, from a section of the crowd where political flags were visible. Police intervention was necessary. Sriram knew something was brewing.

“We had waited two years for the moment. And we also won the opening match against KKR. Usually there would be a festive kind of atmosphere, but due to these incidents we didn’t do anything,” he says. “We just calmly went to the match and watched it. The next day when we heard the matches were shifted to Pune, many fans were heartbroken.”

The city’s police commissioner had advised that it wouldn’t be safe to host matches in Chennai. Less than 24 hours after one of the biggest events in the franchise’s history, the fairytale had to be airlifted.

“The thing they protested was fine,” Sriram says, “but protesting against the match for water was the thing which we didn’t feel good about. We couldn’t do anything. We had to accept it. It was a very bad feeling.”

Then came the Whistle Podu Express.

 

Whistle Podu is now ubiquitous, possibly the biggest branding win in the history of Indian sport. But when the bricks were being laid for it, Chocka and his small team at OPN were taking on something they had no idea about.

India Cements won the bid for the Chennai franchise in 2008, and someone who had worked closely with Chocka recommended his agency as communication partners. He was at a school reunion when he found out.

“It was the 99th or 100th year [of the school], and there was a big festival. Suddenly we were being called for this. They wanted to meet for lunch. I said, ‘boss, can it wait?’ without knowing what it was, how big it was going to be… and my friend said, ‘boss you don’t know what you’re getting into. It could be your biggest client. You come and meet.'”

With those words, Chocka was pulled in to meet Rakesh Singh and R Srinivasan, executives at India Cements, who gave him a two-day deadline to come up with a strategy. Chocka’s strategic partner Bala Manian, he says, wasn’t at the meeting, and couldn’t believe he’d gone out for lunch and come back with a mysterious burden. The IPL was barely in the public sphere then, a big experimental bet in itself. This was in OPN’s favour when they presented to 30 people two days later – at the time the biggest audience the agency had ever had.

“We felt the fans should take ownership, feel like they are in it from day one. It immediately synched with the management there. They didn’t know anything about us and they were just listening, but I think this is what caught their attention,” Chocka says. “The team should belong to the fans. Those days we didn’t know if we were doing the right thing.

“Any agency in the beginning, when they work on a sports brand, the first thing on their mind is do something like Nike, or like Adidas. We consciously stepped away from that.”

They were brought on board the next day. A bigger agency might have had several big clients and in hindsight, Chocka thinks this forced prioritisation is one of the biggest reasons for their success.

“But there is another setback approaching. CSK currently has only two Tamil Nadu players on their roster and a core, including Dhoni, that might not be around for more than a couple of years. A big change in personnel is inevitable, and with it could come a strain on the existing fan dynamics.”

Another reason was knowing the audience. That was how the whistle came about.

“Whistle Podu came with one insight,” Chocka recalls. “We realised when India and Pakistan are playing, you don’t have to tell the Indian fan that you’ve to cheer for India. So our communication was never: cheer for Chennai Super Kings. It was always about how to cheer. We knew you will cheer for CSK, but here is a way to cheer.

“So the whistle was a natural thing because we are all Rajinikanth fans here, most of us. First day, first show of any Rajinikanth movie, you only hear whistles; you can’t hear any dialogue. So we took it from there. We never thought it would catch on.”

A decade on, you can see why Chocka would think that. In the lead-up to the 2009 edition of the IPL, Super Kings put out a 35-second clip, simply titled “Whistle Podu”, which asked fans to send in their efforts at the thumb-and-forefinger whistle. The video peaks at 480p and features some extremely awkward cricketers; Suresh Raina starts it off with passable Tamil diction, and at the end, the baby-faced Parthiv Patel seems to be saying “weasel podu”.

But it worked. Eleven days later came the iconic full anthem, with crowdsourced pelvic thrusts, which endures to this day. The first version didn’t feature Dhoni himself, but thala crept in through posters. The video has had several re-releases since.

Last year, OPN felt there were expectations after such a long break. They briefly thought of making a new anthem, but were stopped by the captain.

“Dhoni was very clear: why should we change the anthem? Our anthem is Whistle Podu. It should not change. That’s the way he is. He likes consistency not just in the field, but in other things also,” Chocka says. So a slight rehash was produced instead, which had Dhoni playing an angsty lead role. Chocka says that according to Facebook, it was the most-watched video during the IPL season.

The whistle idea, and Whistle Podu in particular, became the defining piece of Super Kings fan culture. It set a precedent for letting the fans lead the direction of whatever the franchise did off the field. It established a relationship that survived everything, including a corruption scandal. Matches moving out of the city was hardly a problem.

 

Super Kings’ second home game of 2018 was scheduled for April 20, ten days after their win over Knight Riders. The game was moved to Pune, and fans approached the management, asking them if they could help with tickets. They were told a plan was in the works.

“We thought it would be two coaches or three coaches reserved for the fans,” Sriram says. “But then they said the entire train is for fans, and it was an unbelievable moment. We didn’t expect that sort of effort from the management. And not just once, they took us twice.”

It was another impressive feat in a franchise-fan relationship that has grown so strong that anything seems possible, at both ends.

Durgesh Haridas, who works at a production house in the city, watched three games in Pune last year. Having grown up watching formats more aligned with the idea of the “knowledgeable Chennai crowd,” and moments like Virender Sehwag’s triple-century against South Africa, Durgesh felt little discomfort switching to being a “standalone loyal fan”.

“Being part of the Chennai crowd, we were genuinely a little conservative,” he says. “We weren’t used to all this fervour and a festive atmosphere during the game. During the mid-break, there were games for fans; for most people, it seemed off. My dad attended a game with me and he thought it was a little unnecessary.”

But it worked for Durgesh, and many like him. Super Kings gave a new dimension to an old, precious stadium experience. And a new definition for home.

“Only in the first few years there did we have players from Tamil Nadu who featured in the eleven or in the fifteen. Despite that, the way people accepted people like Dhoni and Raina as their own, even [Matthew] Hayden – there was something that the management and the team did to make people so much more connected to this team,” Durgesh says. “It literally felt like they were representing us. That is what made me feel like this is my team.” He barely misses a game, even when the tickets grow expensive.

Super Kings haven’t had a squeaky clean timeline since their inception, but with every apparent setback, there seems to be a corresponding spurt in the fervour of their supporters. Knight Riders, who have the largest digital fanbase, also had a little taste of this phenomenon early on, albeit their setbacks weren’t quite so extreme.

“It’s big for a fan to weather defeat,” says Joy Bhattacharjya, Knight Riders’ team director for the first seven seasons. “Because when you’ve gone through that, a victory becomes sweeter and then you’re a fan for life. So in my book, while it is a tragedy in many ways, the two years that Chennai was out has made the franchise even sweeter for the fans because they know what it’s all about if you don’t have it. And I think the hardcore Kolkata fan had also had that. Because he had so much defeat early, he appreciates what this team stands for him. ”

From a social media perspective, Chocka and his team have never been micromanaged by the management. This is vital. In hindsight, a bureaucratic, metric-based approach might not have worked for Chennai Super Kings. Most of OPN’s work was reactive, especially when there was no cricket for two years. While the fans were kept interested offline with the Tamil Nadu Premier League, where stars like Dhoni and Raina themselves briefly made appearances, it took a little more effort on the web.

“We made [the fans] the heroes of everything,” Chocka said. “We tweeted them, RTed them, quoted them, reacted to them, which for them was a big joy. They couldn’t believe it – there’s an official handle interacting with them. And we go with the emotions.

“Last year when everybody called us the Daddy’s Army and Indian Pension League, we actually went with the flow. We never took ourselves seriously and that entire credit goes to the management and franchise, because they never interfered. They completely gave us the freedom to talk, to chat, to do whatever we think is right.”

That approach naturally aligns with the many pop-culture connections the fans have made. Starting at last year’s auction, most players have been given colloquial nicknames, the kind of love that is normally reserved for film stars.

“Dhoni… just one word is enough to describe him. Thala. He is the leader. He’s everything for us,” says Sriram. “He’s not the adopted son anymore, he’s the son of our city. Every time he goes to an airport, people think he is coming to Chennai. That’s the love they have for him. They always want him to be here in Chennai. That’s the craziness they have for him.”

But there is another setback approaching. CSK currently has only two Tamil Nadu players on their roster and a core, including Dhoni, that might not be around for more than a couple of years. A big change in personnel is inevitable, and with it could come a strain on the existing fan dynamics. When asked about Dhoni moving on, Sriram pauses before answering.

“There is Raina. Initially during 2008 there was not a star called Dhoni. He won the 2007 [T20] World Cup and he was pretty new to the set-up. But we got him and then all the records happened and all the records were shattered. So it’s not about the player, it’s about CSK bringing out that talent and showcasing to the world. It will happen continuously. And even if Dhoni retires, I’m sure he’ll be part of the support team. So we are anyway glued to Chennai and we will support them.”

If they’re worried, there is precedent, again, in Knight Riders, who over the course of their middling performances during the first three seasons had magnified their fan base’s anger by axing Sourav Ganguly first from captaincy and then from the squad altogether.

“The big actual breakthrough if you see for KKR was in 2012, when Sourav played for Pune [Warriors] against KKR in Kolkata,” Bhattacharjya says. “It was a crazy match. I think there were 75,000 people in the stands, 50,000 in Pune blue, 25,000 in KKR purple. But what happened after that was once that match ended, and KKR won and went on to win the title, that whole divide in the city about support or not support – you know, that this is the team that got rid of Sourav – that completely turned around after that match.”

The messages are there. The team will go on. The game will go on. New stars will be born. Winning makes everything okay. It’s the stuff you hear when something’s about to end.

We might well be entering the final stretch of IPL’s biggest legacy. The attendances at training sessions might fall a little. The fans might have to consider whether they will retire Dhoni’s title, thala, like some clubs retire jersey numbers. Some redistribution of love will have to take place, and some coming to terms. Emerging fans will have to be protected from newly minted cynics, who will be the first set of IPL fans to begin their sentences with “back in the day”.

It happens to all teams. Even at the franchise where everything just… sort of falls into place, some truths will persist. But on the evidence of everything Super Kings have done, so will the whistles.

 

Source: How Chennai Super Kings kept the whistle alive | ESPNcricinfo.com

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