One day, while on a short break from his broadcasting duties during the league phase of this IPL, Robin Uthappa decided to take his son Neale Nolan to Chepauk to watch a Chennai Super Kings home game. Uthappa says it was the first IPL match the two watched from the ground together.
The Uthappas were dressed in Super Kings' yellow. What else would they wear? Uthappa was formerly a Super King - Rajasthan Royals traded him to CSK ahead of the 2021 IPL. It was the sixth franchise Uthappa was representing, having started with Mumbai Indians, followed by stints at Royal Challengers Bangalore, Pune Warriors, Kolkata Knight Riders and Royals.
Nowhere did he feel at home as much, and nowhere else did he and his family receive "as much love" as during the two seasons he spent with CSK, Uthappa says. He retired last year, and reckons his son relates to the franchise because of the "nursery-like atmosphere" there, with children of several players milling together while their dads were busy with the tournament.
That familial bond still exists: Uthappa dropped into a few of Super Kings' training sessions with his family, so his son could meet and play with the friends he'd made - kids of players like MS Dhoni, Ambati Rayudu, and Moeen Ali.
As "heartwarming and fulfilling" as it was to bond with his son while watching a match from the ground, there was another compelling reason Uthappa wanted to be at Chepauk. "Before this IPL began, we thought this could be MS' [Dhoni's] final season. And since MS and I have been friends, we just thought it's only right to show support. I've always experienced Chepuak from an opponent's point of view, never from a CSK point of view. Although I couldn't experience it as a [CSK] player, I just wanted to be there and show my support to MS as a former player and supporter of CSK."
It was Dhoni, his former India captain, who called Uthappa in 2021 and told him frankly that he had nothing to do with Uthappa being traded from Royals. That same honesty would greet Uthappa upon arrival at Super Kings. Dhoni once again told him upfront that he wouldn't walk into the side. This, Uthappa says, was about two months before the 2021 IPL, which was played in the UAE during the Covid-19 pandemic.
"That was literally my first conversation with MS. He's like, 'All I know is, you'll play where you've scored runs - you'll bat in the top three. I don't know if you make my XI, because I'm not thinking about it at the moment. But I know that you don't walk into the side, that much I'm aware of.' The second thing he said to me when I got to the camp was: 'You are not starting, you are the 12th or 13th player for us.'"
Uthappa admits it was extremely hard to hear he would be on the bench. Before joining Super Kings, he was a veteran of 189 IPL matches. So far there have been two batters to win the orange cap in a title-winning side: Uthappa was the first when Knight Riders won the IPL for the first time, in 2014. The other is Ruturaj Gaikwad, Uthappa's team-mate at Super Kings, in 2021, the last time Super Kings won the IPL. "After a point, it wasn't easy mentally, emotionally" not knowing when he was going to get to play in a match, Uthappa says. But he has always respected straight talk.
He told head coach Stephen Fleming and batting coach Michael Hussey he wanted to be match-ready, and that he would wait for his opportunity. "I had to find a way to make myself feel good and contribute to the side. And what they did with me at practice really helped. They said, 'Okay Rob, what do you want to do today?'
"So we went for optional sessions. Every session is optional, by the way, at CSK. No training session is compulsory. So the onus is on you. 'You want to improve as a cricketer, it is your responsibility. You turn up at practice. We'll help you if you turn up, but you have to come halfway as well.' I turned up for literally every session."
Super Kings' coaching staff, including the physio and trainer, Uthappa points out, are mindful about what they say to players. "What has always stood out for me is that the clarity in their communication and follow-ups is second to none. There is a role that is defined as soon as you enter the set-up, and that role is defined or redefined for you, or reiterated to you, constantly through the season, and they check back with you. It's a phenomenal side for youngsters to be a part of, not just for experienced people.
"For any good player, what they need to thrive within an environment, is clarity of role, security, and just communication - and that line of communication being open. And that is something Stephen Fleming and his band of coaches execute with panache. They don't muck around, they don't take it for granted."
Having someone like Hussey, author of some great T20 knocks, a great listener and motivator, helps too. Uthappa says Hussey and Fleming believe in one-on-one chats that allow them to get to know a player and vice-versa. "He [Hussey] will take you for a walk after batting, he will have a cup of coffee with you, and he will discuss a game. He will discuss your goals with you. He will ask you how you want to be communicated with. Do you want a lot of communication or not? It is customised for each player, which is amazing."
Once he realised that he was valued and wanted, Uthappa says it quickly wiped away all the mental cobwebs that restricted him from playing with freedom in his first two matches, in 2021, during which he said he tried too hard. He played two more matches, both in the playoffs, including the final, and both times played impact innings that played a part in Super Kings winning their fourth title.
In the first Qualifier, against Delhi Capitals, Uthappa walked in to bat on the fifth ball of the chase, after the early fall of Faf du Plessis' wicket.
He reminded himself of the basics: watch the ball. A four off the first delivery told Uthappa he could trust his instincts. He went on to stitch together a 110-run partnership with Gaikwad, which formed the backbone of the chase of the 173-run target. In the final, against Knight Riders, Uthappa understood he had to take on the responsibility of dominating the spinners after a quick 61-run partnership between the openers. A 15-ball 31 set the platform for a formidable Super Kings total.
The coaches did not forget to thank Uthappa at the end. "There was a level of appreciation from them and subtle gratitude. It showed me that I was valued, and my patience was appreciated, because they understood me as a person. They understood how I functioned as a human being and they appreciated the effort that I put in from my end.
"And they thought that I came halfway. And that, for me, went a long way. That is why my level of respect and loyalty towards CSK is that high. Because we both met halfway."
Fleming started as a player at Super Kings in the inaugural IPL, in 2008. Since 2009 he has been the head coach and Dhoni's most trusted sounding board. As a respected international captain, Fleming learned tactical and man-management skills over the years and he has built on that base in his time at CSK. Like Dhoni, Fleming too believes in picking and sticking with good resources: Eric Simons, the former South Africa fast bowler and head coach, and Hussey have been key lieutenants for several years.
A new entrant into the brains trust this season is former West Indies allrounder and captain Dwayne Bravo, who shares bowling-coach duties with Simons. Bravo retired from the IPL as a player after the 2022 season, having joined Super Kings in 2011. Rajiv Kumar, a former first-class team-mate of Dhoni's at Bihar and Jharkhand, is the fielding coach.
Two other key people who have been with the franchise since its inception are physiotherapist Tommy Simsek and trainer Greg King. This leadership group, which takes crucial decisions, has complete and unflinching trust in each other. Simsek has played a massive role in keeping Dhoni match-ready, even if he needs to function on one leg at times.
Former India fast bowler L Balaji, who worked as Super Kings' bowling coach alongside Simons for five seasons until 2022, believes the franchise's success is based on the structure created by Fleming and his team. "That is what makes CSK special - the way the coaches handle the players. And players, be they rookies or seniors, are given the freedom to express themselves."
It might be his first season in coaching boots, but Bravo's influence has already been significant. The growth of Tushar Deshpande, who, as Dhoni recently acknowledged, has gradually become confident in execution under pressure at the death, has a lot to do with Bravo. In a recent chat between him and Simons, Bravo spoke about bringing to the bowlers' meeting a "game feel" and adding "cricket smarts", especially while bowling in the second half of T20 matches - a specialism he perfected over his long career.
Simons, a successful fast bowler himself when he played, is soft-spoken but well respected, having performed in both head coach and bowling-coach roles with South Africa and India. He describes Bravo as "a perfect innovator who possesses that depth of knowledge and experience that is massively useful to us all".
Simons is heavily involved in preparing the team's tactics board. "You often hear commentators talk about the team needing to take wickets in the powerplay. That's easy to say, but our job is to work out how we do it. That's [where] the tactics [come in]," he says.
"What we've done a lot of this year is [refining] why we use that tactic or why we use that field," Simons says. "And that's an education and a process, so that they [players] feel as equipped as possible to make decisions in the middle. It's a bit of a cliché to talk about process, but we very specifically look at the process and the execution of a plan rather than the outcome, in a situation where we have teams scoring 200 every match now. If you just look at outcomes, you will get confused.
"So we've had situations where an over's gone for 22 runs and an over has gone for nine in the same week - if you look at the execution, they're pretty close. So for us [our job is] to create that safety for the guys to understand that your job is to execute. As much as you can talk about confidence in situations, knowing you can execute the ball is what gives you the confidence. And that's what we do a lot in the nets -give them good ideas of how to build their confidence."
Twenty-one-year-old left-arm quick Akash Singh is grateful for the well of knowledge he and fellow uncapped Indian players can draw from. "It has been very helpful," Singh, who played five league phase matches earlier this season, said in an interview on the Super Kings website. "[Simons] pays a lot of attention on how to work with the new ball, how to work on the wrist position, how to work on the non-bowling arm. To be proactive and inform us about what we need to do, and helping us with how to do it, has been an amazing experience to learn from the coaches."
For Simons it is all about staying honest to the original ethos of Super Kings from 2008. "It's a place of honesty, of learning from each other, and of a lack of ego. That's why it is a happy bunch. And we know at this game tomorrow, we could be under the pump. There's no guarantee of success."
Bravo agrees. He provides the example of Ben Stokes, whose season was limited to two matches by injury. "You look at someone like Ben Stokes coming here as one of the highest paid players. But when he got injured, he was happy to sit out. He wasn't a diva on the bench," Bravo said after Super Kings got the better of defending champions Gujarat Titans in the first Qualifier to make their tenth IPL final. "His attitude was right, his energy was right. This is the type of environment CSK create. They are very honest with players. They create an environment where you come and perform. They don't judge players based on their performance or anything like that."
Stokes went home after the league phase, but he had no complaints. "When you look at the roll that the team got on while I was injured, then it was pretty simple for me, to be honest. I knew that when I was back to fitness, it wasn't going to be a case of just coming back into the team, because you don't want to change things around when the team's going too well," Stokes said in an interview to the franchise's media operation. "So for me, the period when I was able to get back into training was just making sure that I was doing the right things to allow myself to be able to go if I was asked to play or required to play. But we've been in such great form throughout the season that I've been more than happy to watch the team go out there and win the games."
Uthappa echoes that sentiment. "You're not pandering to anyone. If it fits, it's very clear. The highest priority is given to the team and the performance of the team on the field and what will add value to that. Nothing else. And nobody else comes before that. Not even MS."
Another tenet that has carried on since 2008 at the franchise is that Super Kings always give a player a long run - the kind of operating principle that made players felt secure under Dhoni's captaincy at the international level as well. It doesn't matter if the team is going through a slump or on a tear, Super Kings will not disrupt things that they see as working for them. From the outside, it might be interpreted as the team being rigid, but the Super Kings management and leadership group will give a player plenty of space if they believe he is doing the right things.
"The key is to create an atmosphere that is player-friendly," Balaji says. "You can look at CSK and notice that the players are both relaxed and comfortable. And that helps them with executing. That is because the management persists with the player. You trust the performance will come one day."
This season has been no different. Though the IPL now allows teams to substitute players in or out with the Impact Player rule, Super Kings have fielded an unchanged XII for ten consecutive matches, including the first Qualifier.
If and when they do decide to replace a player, they ensure he is spoken to directly and given reasons for the change. In 2022, Uthappa featured in a dozen matches. Super Kings finished ninth that year, their worst season. The coaches explained to Uthappa that they wanted to try out a left-right opening combination at the top of the order and pair Devon Conway with Gaikwad.
Uthappa took it in his stride, batting in various positions in the middle order in the second half of the 2022 season. "You get pushed down the order, much like what has happened to Rayudu this year. It's not like you are batting badly, it's just that you're in a place where you are having to do a different role that they understand is not your strength but are very happy to give you an extended run. They tell you that we won't chop and change. Because it's not about finding someone for that particular position. There is a level of flexibility, and along with that flexibility comes a lot of security, which makes you feel, 'I'll go out and try my best even if it's not my natural position.'
"Ask Moeen Ali, who batted No. 3 last year and this year batted from No. 3 to all different positions. You'll never hear him say an ill word about CSK simply because he understands that his position is never threatened, it's always secure."
Uthappa believes other franchises "miss a trick" by not replicating Super Kings' approach. "It's just that a lot of other franchises can't exercise the level of patience that CSK do with certain players in different positions."
Moeen, who has been with the franchise since 2021, agrees. In an interview recently, he said, "What I have noticed, and what probably separates MS from everybody else as a captain in many ways, is that if guys have a couple of bad games, especially in the first couple of games, every other team would drop the player or just say, 'Look, you are probably not good enough right now.' And that's where MS and the coaches see things in players, [and say] 'Give him a few more games, he's got the potential and he's got something about him.' Most teams don't stick with that player as long."
Rayudu is an example of a player being persisted with, despite having no specific batting position this season. In 2018, he amassed 600-plus runs opening with Shane Watson, when Super Kings won their first IPL since returning from a two-year suspension. Since then Rayudu has been retained, cajoled into revoking his retirement, and given the importance he deserves. Rayudu has repaid that faith in him by playing his part, like with his nine-ball 17 against Titans in the first Qualifier.
"They understand how important experience is in a T20 game," Uthappa says. "People will not notice those runs from Ambati Rayudu in the qualifier, the value that it holds in a chase, but the team appreciates it. The people within that dressing room, the coaching staff, understand the value of that and that would have been communicated to him. And those are the small things that go a long way at CSK."
For the past two years, team-mates, opponents and everyone else on the outside has thronged to the IPL to pay homage to Dhoni. This year has been no different. It has been an emotional season for Dhoni and Super Kings, who are now one match away from potentially joining Mumbai Indians as five-time winners.
Chennai Super Kings have built their legacy on doing the seemingly impossible and unthinkable. The 2022 season was an exception, and a humiliating one for a team that had got used to being serial winners. A new captain, Ravindra Jadeja, was appointed , but he swiftly stepped down as the losses stacked up at the halfway stage. Jadeja left the team camp before the close of the season, creating speculation he was going to leave the franchise. Dhoni's future was also uncertain as his own form was fickle.
Yet Super Kings did not blink or panic. Dhoni is hobbling on one good leg this year but still excels at what he does best: leading a team. Irrespective of what happens on Sunday evening in Ahmedabad, Super Kings have already won hearts. Again.
"We knew we had something special pretty early on - we had special owners, we had a special captain, special coaches and special players," Hussey said. "All those ingredients coming together gave us a very good blueprint for hopefully what was going to be a lot of success moving forward. It's been a great journey, so let's hope it continues for many more years to come."