Whistles in the night

A very personal celebration of the return of the Chennai Super Kings

It’s 1976 in Philadelphia, and the working-class folks in the city’s south have been hit by a particularly vicious cycle of economic slowdown, strikes and unemployment. One of them, a part-time bartender, is dealt rough hand after rough hand. He loses his job as a substitute teacher, his wife leaves him, his mates are struggling. It’s a tough time. As a background to all of this is the horror run of the Philadelphia Eagles, the city’s NFL team, their team.
 
This is the setting for Ericson Core’s 2006 football movie, Invincible, starring Mark Wahlberg. 
 
What follows is a classic tale of determination, luck, and redemption - almost trademarked now as a storyboard for the American sports movie. Mark Wahlberg’s Vince Papale, a 30 year old with some footballing talent and a lot of heart, somehow ends up playing for his city’s beloved team, and leads them to glory. It’s a pretty good movie, drawn from a true story, but that’s not why it’s one of my favourites.
 
Invincible is as much about Philadelphia as it is about its characters and about football. The idea of the city as a community, with its people holding it and themselves together in tough times, is a major theme.
 
In one of the movie’s strongest scenes, Vince and his father Frank (played magnificently by Kevin Conway) are sitting on a porch on a cold evening. Vince has been training with the Eagles, and the season’s about to begin. But now he’s starting to feel that he’s not good enough, that he should give up.

Looking up at his son’s face, Frank tells him, “You know how I used to tell you about Van Buren scoring that touchdown back in ‘48? That touchdown got me through 30 years at that factory. Got me through all those times your mother being sick. When I told you not to get your hopes up, didn’t mean that I wasn’t.”

People who don’t understand sport and fandom won’t get what Papale’s father is saying. Is it possible, really, for something as relatively insignificant and even trivial, like a football team’s win, to provide solace, to make up for financial troubles, for life’s daily humiliations, your own failures?

Well, yes. It does all that and more. We wouldn’t be sports fans otherwise. 
But how, and more importantly, why?

In 2008, the first year of the Indian Premier League, when the Chennai Super Kings were brought together, I was 20, and attending engineering school. No one knew what would become of this experiment, this new tournament. Which was our team? Which was not? Should we be even picking a side? No one had any idea.
 
The choice was made for us, somewhat, in the pre-season team branding campaigns. While some teams went for cosmopolitan, everyone-is-welcome imagery and music (Deccan Chargers — Go chargers go, with no mention of Hyderabad itself), some went for more local fare (Knightriders — Korbo lorbo jeetbore). But none went at the idea of the local team with the extent that the Super Kings did: All the songs were in Tamil, all the promos were in Tamil, the videos featured temple gopurams, the Marina, and plastic bat-wielding paatis. The campaign was almost exclusionary. This is the Tamil team, it seemed to say, no one else’s. And we went for it. We were sold. This seemed like our team. These seemed like our people.
 
There was also another very important cultural peculiarity at play here. Chennai is very unique in that it’s widely held to the capital of an entire people, not just a linguistically partitioned state. Madras remains the capital of the Tamils, literally, culturally, and emotionally. Michael Wood points this out beautifully in his 1993 travelogue of the Tamil south, The Smile of Murugan — “Ask a Tamil abroad where he’s from, and he’ll say India. Ask him where he’s from if he’s elsewhere in India, he’ll say Madras.”
 
It was this love for Chennai, as our city, namma ooru, that made the Chennai Super Kings start out with the fanfare they did. Chepauk remained full that first season, as the team came together. They played a swashbuckling, entertaining brand of cricket; I remember the first season as a flurry of wins and celebrations, upended by that last cruel defeat to Shane Warne’s young, punching-above-their-weight Royals.
 
Season followed season, star player was followed by star player, the years rolled on, and along the way, the team started to represent an entire people, their love for the game, and their ferociously beloved capital.
 
I don’t know when it happened either. I certainly supported the Super Kings in the first season. I loved MS Dhoni, the idea of his small town childhood, and it was natural that I support the Tamil team led by him. What I do not know is when that support became something deeper, a fandom I now wear on my sleeve, a cultural marker, even an expression of who I am.
 
I was 23 when the Super Kings won their first title. I was 24, a struggler in Hyderabad when they won the second title. I was trying to keep the job I had. I did not know where I was headed. I remember that time chiefly as a dark blur of depression, punctuated by a yellow flash of glory. 
 
That victory meant everything to me.
 
The following years did nothing to dampen the love I had for the Super Kings. They still played great cricket, so what if they didn’t win the trophy? For me, it was enough that they existed. Supporting them, watching them, knowing them was one of the highlights of the year.
 
 And then came the ban. 
 
The years that the Super Kings did not play coincided with two tough years for me. I did very well professionally, but at a cost. My losses were personal, deep, debilitating. And my team wasn’t there to help pull me together. This isn’t cheap sentimentality; the Super Kings have been a constant presence, an entity that I could count upon, and in a time of continuous, sometimes enervating and sometimes crippling change, I needed them, even if just to remind myself of who I am.
 
And there are times when you need these reminders.
 
In a little more than a week from now, the Super Kings will take the field again, against Rohit Sharma’s Mumbai at the Wankhede. The 11th season will begin.
 
And suddenly, magically, nothing would have changed. All that happened in the interim — all of that, would, for a while, be forgotten, set aside, made to wait. For a while, nothing else would matter except that they had returned. An even more weathered MS, a slightly plumper Raina, a pluckier Jaddu, the latest Bravo song, a long-haired Vijay; they will be accompanied by a new yellow horde, hopefully with the same spirit and flair that made us love them so much.
 
For me, it’ll be personal, as I suppose it will be for a lot of others.
 
Soon they’ll be here, playing at home. The floodlights will be on at Chepauk. The Bay of Bengal will blow on to the sweat-drenched backs of fans on the eastern stands. On the MRTS train back after the game, the whistles will fly, the song will be sung, with plastic-bottle music as accompaniment, again and again and again.
 
I’ll be there too, singing at the top of my voice, singing the song I’ve sung all these years, singing myself hoarse. No one will be listening, but the loud, urgent declarations of my allegiance will ring out into the southern night: This is my team, this is my city, these are my people. This is who I am.