Mahendra Singh Dhoni
Mahendra Singh Dhoni, captain of the Chennai Super Kings, plays a pull shot during an IPL 2021 match in Dubai. Image Credit: ANI

A six to finish the game, that’s the Dhoni stamp of victory. He’s done that time and again. The fans love it, and Mahendra Singh Dhoni knows it. The six that fetched India the 2011 World Cup is still fresh in public memory. That’s why Dhoni never passes up a chance to sent the ball soaring over the fence when his team is on the cusp of victory.

The Sharjah Cricket Stadium witnessed one of those breathtaking shots on Thursday (September 30, 2021). With two runs off three balls required to win, Dhoni unfurled the glory shot that rose into the night sky. The cheering, whistling crowd was on its feet, willing the ball to sail over the wide long-on boundary. It was the shot that sealed an IPL 2021 playoff spot for Chennai Super Kings.

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Dhoni is a hero, adored around the world. In Tamil Nadu, they worship him. It’s a wonder that they still don’t have a temple for him. Dhoni is the captain of the Chennai Super Kings, but he’s the thala (leader in Tamil) to everyone in the state.

A Hindi-speaking cricketer from Jharkand in northern India, Dhoni leads the team from Tamil Nadu, a southern state that’s fiercely protective of its Tamil language and culture. Dhoni transcends these barriers to find a place in the hearts of all Tamilians. 

Chennai Super Kings, as the name suggests, is an IPL franchise from Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu. But its fan base is not limited to the state. They are scattered all over India, and all of them are not Tamilians. Even in cities like Mumbai, Kolkata and Bangalore, which have their IPL franchises, CSK are hugely popular. And the man responsible for its popularity is Dhoni, a former India captain.

CSK have supporters not just in India but all over the world. A journalist in Dubai told me that her Pakistani cab driver is a huge CSK fan and a Dhoni admirer. There were plenty of Pakistani expatriates in the crowd that came to cheer the Chennai Super Kings on Thursday.

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Mahendra Singh Dhoni is MSD, Mahi, Captain Cool and Thala to his adoring fans. One of Dhoni’s best-known supporters is Pakistan-born cricket enthusiast Mohammad Bashir, who runs a restaurant in Chicago. Known as “Chacha Chicago”, Bashir travels to cricket matches in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to watch Dhoni play. Recently, Ajay Gill, another hard-core fan, walked more than 1,400km from his village in Haryana to Ranchi to meet Dhoni on India’s Independence Day.

English pace bowler Kate Cross is a supporter of CSK and Dhoni and often tweets in support. She even has developed a fan rivalry with her teammate Alexandra Hartley, a Royal Challengers Bangalore supporter. Judging from media reports, even Dhoni’s CSK teammate, Sam Curran of England, is in awe of him.

I’m convinced that CSK fans love Dhoni more than their team. That was confirmed by a strange sight at the Sharjah stadium on Thursday. When Faf du Plessis was dismissed by Sunrisers Hyderabad’s Jason Holder, a roar went up. It didn’t sound like a cheer for Du Plessis’ knock. Are they cheering his dismissal? I wondered.

I looked up and saw MSD ambling to the crease. It resembled a lion making a grand entrance. And the din in the stadium rose by several decibels. Each of his shots was greeted with high-pitched whistles, followed by a roar. Jason Roy nearly broke the spectators’ hearts when flung to his right in an attempt to catch an extra cover drive. Luckily for Dhoni and his legion of fans, the ball slipped out of the grasp of Roy. More whistling and roars followed.

A little later, the six arrived. It was like a premonition. Everyone knew it was coming. Because that’s how Dhoni finishes games. He didn’t disappoint. As the ball left the bat, the yellow flag-waving WhistlePodu (blow the whistle, in Tamil) brigade of CSK fans rose to their feet, and full-throated cheers filled the stadium.

Long after I reached home, the whistling hadn’t stopped in my ears. Dhoni is a phenomenon. I was convinced.