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  • Aahana Choksi

Inside the IPL 2023 Final : Reliving the Super Kings’ Sendoff for their Superstar

Bhai, aaj toh Bhagwan bhi ro rahe hain,” (today, even God is crying) a loud man behind me proclaimed in tears, as the thunder in Ahmedabad refused to stop roaring. The 2023 IPL final was originally scheduled for the 28th of May, but on that day, hopes of enthusiastic spectators totaling up to just over a lakh were washed away, quite literally. The home ground of the Gujarat Titans was a sea of yellow. I was amongst the majority – face painted yellow, a soaking number 7 jersey on my back, and the flag of a lion in my hand. Eventually, the crowds in the stands began conversing, bored of watching the drops of water swirl under the bright lights in the largest cricket stadium in India.

It was then that I learned that the tearful man behind me had flown in from Chennai for Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s farewell match and was taking the 4 am flight out the same night. People around us were soaking wet, face paint running with tears and the rainwater, and yet they were undeterred. One name on their lips, over and over again – “Dhoni, Dhoni, Dhoni.” The resolve of over 90% of the spectators remained unwavering. They stood their ground well into the darkness of the night until the game was officially called off and shifted to the next day. Undaunted in their hope, the anticipation of a match on reserve day was alive and kicking.

As the match recommenced on Day 2, we were unable to hear the captains talk while the toss took place – the roars and chants were deafening. Somehow, this day saw a considerable amount of blue and Gujarat Titans flags amongst the yellow. The Titans batted bravely and dominated the first half, posting a massive total of 214 in their 20 overs.

Wriddhiman Saha (54) and Shubman Gill (39) began brilliantly, setting a partnership of 67 in 7 overs. CSK got their much-required break when the Titan’s triple-century striker and tournament Orange Cap winner departed. The Captain of Super Kings’ stroke of magic behind the stumps was celebrated like a godsend. “CSK ka saat number GT ke saat number se bhaari!” (Shubman Gill stands nothing against MS Dhoni), a fan laughed out with joy.

Smashing 8 fours and 6 sixes, the spirited youngster Sai Sudharshan was mesmerising to watch. His carefully constructed innings displayed a combination of elegant strokeplay and the destructive ability to slog that the modern T20 game requires. Even his singles were applauded by the crowd. Gone just 4 runs short of his century, the entire stadium was on their feet to respect the brilliant game he played. Skipper Pandya’s quick cameo (21*) inched the Titans closer and closer to the trophy.

The Super Kings had just begun their batting, and the fans had long since forgotten the events of the previous day. Stowed in denial of any obstacles, no one wanted to think there was a chance of rain. The third ball had just left the bat when it started pouring. As the players ran off the pitch, the fans remained rooted for the 2.5 hours that the game took to restart, a testament to their dedication and morale. One lakh people danced and jumped to songs in the rain, eagerly awaiting the restart of play. The fervent mood was something I have never witnessed, and I doubt I ever will again.

Hours later when the umpires finally deemed the pitch fine to play, the players took their places. There was screaming all around. Was the DLS method unfair to the Titans? Or was it in fact in their favor? No one knew for sure, and the answer would only be discovered after the last ball.

The openers for the Super Kings started off strong as the imposing target of 171 had to be achieved within 15 overs. Gaikwad (26) and Conway (47) had a strong partnership going until Noor Ahmed’s masterful opening spell for the Titans dismissed both openers. Conway’s lament of ‘No!’ lingered loudly – the opening pair had been resolute rocks for the Super Kings all season, and did not want to leave much for the middle order. Ajinkya Rahane and Ambati Rayudu played short but exciting cameos which were full of boundaries. If the Titan’s innings was driven by the youthful exuberance of Gill and Sudarshan, Chennai had to rely on experienced hands in the middle overs. Rahane in his comeback season and Rayudu in his farewell match continued the Super Kings’ charge toward their 5th title.

And then, the unexpected. Mahendra Singh Dhoni walked out to bat. Reminiscent of his advancing up the order, out of form, at the Wankhede in 2011 to win another final, Dhoni promoted himself ahead of the likes of Jadeja and Ali who were younger, surer bets. ‘Wild’ would be an understatement to describe the crowd. I must admit, I don’t remember much of that one minute. Like the rest of the crowd, I was on my chair, screaming and crying. What I do remember is that my brother – a hardcore Pandya fan – was also on the chair next to me, teary-eyed and screaming with excitement.

Loyalties were tested when Dhoni came out to bat. People around us wore yellow Dhoni jerseys on top of their Gujarat jerseys. The rest who stuck with the Gujarat colours still cheered as loudly as us. The crowd’s reaction, and mine, was a brilliant example of the power of sport to suspend disbelief. It wasn’t 2011, when the swashbuckling wicketkeeper-batsman was at his prime. This was 2023, when you could see cracks in his batting game, grimaces on his face while running in between the wickets or making a dive, and a profound sense of vulnerability throughout the season where he didn’t back himself to take on more than one or two overs in a game – but nobody cared. The Ahmedabad crowd’s reaction to Dhoni’s long walk to the pitch was an endorsement of the fact that sport is, at its simplest, the most compelling form of storytelling.

Yes, I know he departed for a duck. I know he was only on the field for a minute. But in that minute, we were all united. I couldn’t hear the person next to me. As people chanted his name, louder than ever before, it gave me goosebumps. When he was caught by Miller at cover, owing to the magician Mohit Sharma, everything went quiet. The stadium reached a complete standstill. No one could process what had just happened. He cried on his way back to the dugout, as did all of us. “Ab nahi chahiye trophy,” (We don’t want the trophy anymore) said the CSK fans around me.

Then, in the CSK fans’ darkest moment, out came Ravindra Jadeja. Along with Dube, he was their final ray of light. He took the game till the last ball, giving all the CSK fans the hope they had seemed to lose at Dhoni’s departure. The last two balls were true brilliance, and the final boundary somehow found its way right between two fielders standing on guard. Jadeja exuded finesse, confidence, and most of all, experience. Often playing second fiddle in the team to the legendary presence of India’s greatest ever captain, Jadeja’s clutch finish adds to his impressive resume and cements his position as an all-time great IPL player, if he wasn’t already.

The Gujarat Titans were undoubtedly the best team throughout the tournament, with the highest run scorer and wicket taker both in their squad. The young group almost tasted their second consecutive victory this season. But perhaps the ‘Dad’s Army,’ truly did have this win destined for their Captain – the Last Dance for a mythical figure that India and Cricket will never forget.

The 2023 final was an apt advertisement for the IPL and the T20 game – huge sixes, a plethora of runs, and a nail-biting finish. However, this game will be remembered for so much more than the contest between bat and ball. Just one more feather in the cap of an all time great franchise, celebrating their beloved captain. The fact that most fans stayed back well into early dawn to see MSD lift the trophy speaks volumes to his impact. Witnessing the Dhoni-fanaticism in the stadium, as he hinted at the possibility of his return next year, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The speech was drowned out by screams and cries for the last time that night as he took a lap of the stadium waving to the crowd, acknowledging his admirers. As I soaked in the atmosphere, I thought to myself – the God of Cricket is undoubtedly Sachin Tendulkar, but the following that this man has garnered is nothing if not religious.

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