IPL 2020: An IPL away from India? Not a problem for CSK’s Whistle Podu Army
Prabhu Damodaran, 42, was in the stands, unable to hold back tears of joy as Ambati Rayudu drove Carlos Brathwaite through covers for the winning runs in the final of the 2018 IPL. Chennai Super Kings had staged a dream return, winning the IPL title for the third time by beating Sunrisers Hyderabad in the summit clash. The win was more special than any of the franchise’s previous two titles wins. Why wouldn’t it? CSK were making a comeback after serving a two-year-ban, and despite being tagged as ‘Dad’s Army’ for the number of 30 plus players in the squad, their experience was enough to trump the team that finished top of the table.
Damodaran is the co-founder of the famous ‘Whistle Podu Army’ – a Bharat Army-type fan group comprising fans of CSK – that travels places to watch their favourite team play. Bundled up in euphoria, the W.P Army, over the years, has ensured that the buzz in Chennai grows louder each year around IPL time. So when the news of the tournament being moved to the UAE broke, the fans weren’t too thrilled. That said, once it sunk in, the excitement kicked in. Despite being aware that they may not get to see their favourite guys in action this year, the fans haven’t allowed the setback to affect their enthusiasm levels.
“I don’t know if crowd would be allowed in the initial stages but if it is, we will surround the stadium with yellow for sure, because we have a lot of fans around the UAE and even here, who are willing to travel and go through quarantine and everything,” Damodaran tells Hindustan Times in an exclusive chat. “After all, the fans are the ones who make for all the excitement. It’s better to have an IPL than nothing at all. Even if it’s on TV, let’s get to see MS Dhoni walk out and lead the team to win. Wherever we’ll be at, we’ll be screaming.”
For Damodaran and his army, what promises to make this season’s IPL bitter-sweet is the fact that their beloved ‘Thala’, MS Dhoni returns to cricket after a gap of over a year. With the former India captain announcing his retirement from international cricket last month, the IPL becomes all the more important for Dhoni and his legion of fans. No single player in history of the IPL has had the kind of connection with a franchise quite like Dhoni with CSK. He calls Chennai his second home and one can’t argue. Afterall, the people of Chennai have lifted their demi-god and placed him on the same level as the original Thala, superstar Rajnikant.
“Though we are going to miss MS in blue, all the attention will go to the IPL. Obviously, when it was moved out, we were disappointed. We normally go for home games and even travel at times for away games. We ensure that even Wankhede or Eden Gardens is at least half yellow. In 2018, even in Wankhede we had an almost Yellow turnout. Obviously, it’s all Dhoni to an extent but there’s also CSK fandom in Mumbai,” Damodaran says.
In July, reports had surfaced that the Emirates Cricket Board will attempt to fill 30 to 50 percent stadiums during the IPL, even if an option for it emerges during the latter half of the tournament. But a sudden rise in the number of Covid-19 cases in Abu Dhabi may hurt those plans. If not however, expect the stadiums during CSK games to turn yellow. With IPL being the only platform for fans to see Dhoni perform here onward, Damodaran has assured the Whistle Podu Army will be pulling out all the stops.
“We are trying to see, depending on the situation, how quickly we can, maybe in a smaller group, reach parts of the city. At the moment, we have not thought about it because we want MS to be with us for the next 2-3 years, and I am sure that people have these thoughts in mind. For us, wherever Dhoni plays the IPL, it will be a sort of farewell match for him,” he adds.
“Even a Mumbai Indians fan becomes a CSK fan when he looks at Dhoni walking out to bat. Things like this happen at every venue. The next IPL is going to be very special because you never know with him, when suddenly he’ll change his mind, or when he feels it’s enough. We see players around 40-42 play leagues around. MS being one of the fittest, should be around for a few years.”
The Whistle Podu Army was set-up when CSK got suspended. Around the end of 2015, the group was officially registered and it launched a campaign called ‘Save CSK’, which received a whopping 13000 signatures, which was presented to the BCCI. Although it’s not exactly a charity organisation, throughout the year, outside of the IPL, the W.P Army chips in and does things for people.
“Somewhere we wanted to have an official recognised platform for us to make our case. While registering we thought, why register as a general fan club? We followed a process and registered as a society,” says Damodaran. “On MS’ birthday, Raina’s birthday, we go around orphanages, old-age homes and spend time with specially-abled children. That’s something we’ve been doing since 2016 and July 7 every year we conduct a blood donation camp. We started in Chennai and now it has spread to Sri Lanka – Kandy and Colombo, Ranchi, Bihar, West Bengal, Mumbai. We have set a trend.”
In terms of IPL rivalry, few match the level of competitiveness shared by CSK and Mumbai Indians and CSK. However, in terms of fan banter, the rivalry is extreme whenever the Southern derby takes place, RCB vs CSK – between Virat’s army and Dhoni’s guys. For Damodaran however, his biggest banter starts at home.
“My younger son is a Mumbai Indians freak, because he’s grown up watching Rohit, Hardik and Bumrah while playing for the national team. He obviously never saw Raina play for India or Dhoni leading the team to ICC trophies. What happens is during every CSK-MI team, one side we put the Mumbai flag and the other side, we have the CSK one. Last IPL when CSK lost, I was at the stadium in tears and he’s calling me saying ‘look, we’ve won’. I have to take it,” he says.
Like all CSK fans, Dhoni is Damodaran’s favourite, and has a special Dhoni story to share: “What I do is I preserve my match ticket and get it signed by the Player of the Match.
“Being an MS fan, I collect a lot of cricket stumps. I met MS with the IPL stumps and he told me that ‘a sign on the stump is the most difficult thing’ because it’s not a flat surface and you need to do it slowly. When a friend said that I purchased the stump in an auction, MS said: ‘Oh! Why did you buy it? You could have asked me.’”