There was a lot of buzz around a boutique hotel located a little over 500m from Chepauk in Chennai. Nestled between a sports shop and makeshift auto rickshaw stand, it was the landmark for the yellow jerseys to converge before commencing the famous Whistle Podu Army march to the stadium ahead of IPL 2023 Qualifier 1 between Chennai Super Kings and Gujarat Titans. From Vizag to Kerala, members of the celebrated fan club assembled and waited for their rockstar to finish his paint job, put the curly hair wig on and lead the energetic procession.
Around 5:30 PM, ‘rockstar’ Saravanan Hari arrived, met his friends from the fan club and set off for the stadium. The energy was electric, the whistles were being blown in full glory and “Dhoni, Dhoni, CSK, CSK” chants reverberated in the cramped streets. There were frequent time checks on the way as they didn’t want to get late for the contest but throughout the march, in extremely hot and humid conditions, the energy didn’t drop and served a perfect appetiser for the 40-over feast ahead.
Dressed in CSK’s yellow and no prize for guessing the number on their back. 7 is not just a number for the cricket fans in Chennai. It’s an emotion, it’s their connect with cricket, with the IPL. For them, life starts and ends with 7. No other number, not even Sachin Tendulkar’s 10 or Virat Kohli’s 18, anywhere in the world has had the kind of connect which Dhoni’s 7 has in Chennai.
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The moment Chepauk was in sight, the march picked up pace and there was palpable excitement in every step they took towards the stand. Around 6:10 PM the Whistle Podu Army would ease into the stadium, find their seats ahead of the press box and in the centre was Saravanan Hari relentlessly waving the giant CSK flag.
Before Saravanan became the cynosure of all eyes at Chepauk, he neatly applied the strokes of yellow in company of close friends in a small hotel room. There were numerous phone calls enquiring the details of his march and he patiently attended them all and kept evening the paint on his face.
During the 30-minute drill, Saravanan gave a candid account of the man behind the yellow paint and how he fell in love with the game.
“Back in the day, when I was pursuing my Class 6, the contemporary format was the day-match. The coin toss used to be done at 9 and the game used to start at 9.30. People used to flock in in hordes to watch Sachin Tendulkar play. I was among the many who rocked into the stadium to watch him play. And the feeling I had when I saw it for the first time still persists.
“Off the top of my head, I remember the disappointment when India lost the ICC World Cup final against Australia back in 2003. I was crest-fallen. I was devastated when Sachin lost his wicket that day,” recalls Saravanan.
The disappointment was still evident in his tone as he momentarily paused the makeup. It was, however, off in a flash when he remembered “THAT” six by MS Dhoni in the 2011 World Cup final against Sri Lanka.
“But, when Dhoni remedied that pain by smashing ‘that’ six in Wankhede against Sri Lanka in the 2011 final, my joy knew no bounds. Proper unbridled joy,” says Saravanan.
Dhoni’s love-affair with Chennai began in the year 2008 when he was acquired by the CSK franchise at the IPL auction. The chatter around “this man called Dhoni” grew and in no time he became as invaluable as “Kohinoor Diamond” for the city.
“Back then the headline was that this man called Dhoni went for the highest bid that day… Dhoni is no ordinary name though. We got him for 7 crores (little over 6 crores) back in the day, but today, the signing has proven to be as invaluable as the Kohinoor Diamond,” remembers Saravanan.
With every passing season, Dhoni’s bond with the region strengthened and in no time, Mahi of Ranchi became the Thala of Chennai.
“He’s become a part of our families. And everybody from six to sixty knows Dhoni. I feel there is an old prophecy that says ‘Vandhaarai Vaazhavaikum Tamizh Nadu’ (The land that nourishes those who arrive). Anyone who comes to our soil returns an esteemed person,” says Saravanan.
During numerous conversations about his family, background and life, Saravanan wasn’t disinterested but didn’t stop the paint work. The moment discussions moved to MS Dhoni and CSK, he would stop and immaculately explain what the former Indian captain means to him and people of Chennai.
“Had CSK and Dhoni not come into my life, this interview wouldn’t have happened, we wouldn’t have been in this room right now, I wouldn’t have been the person you know today,” says Saravanan.
It wasn’t a smooth sail for the Super Fan who has had fair share of difficulties in life. Hailing from North Madras, Saravanan wasn’t a bad student but had to take up odd jobs instead of pursuing further education to support his family. A close friend revealed how Saravanan would do gigs like fixing tyre punctures just to fulfil the needs of his family. Back in the day, it was a dream for him to fly on an aircraft and used to keep gawking at the sky. Ever since he started painting in 2013, life took a turn for good and sponsorship from CSK for away games allowed him a lot of flying time.
“I hail from a middle-class family and still remember the times I used to dream about flying on an aircraft while looking at the sky. But, today I have lost count of the number of flights I have taken. And Chennai Super Kings are the reason behind it. I started painting up in 2013 and from 2014 CSK were sponsoring me for the away games, which they continued thereafter,” says Saravanan.
Even after so many years, the memory of the first flight is still fresh and his eyes lit up when he recalls that journey from Ranchi to Chennai. He relived the “unforgettable experience” and had the excitement of a kid in a candy shop. He would go on to travel to games in the UK too but that first flight remains special.
“The first away game I travelled to was Ranchi and my first flight experience was from Ranchi to Chennai. An absolutely unforgettable experience. Beyond domestic away games, I have travelled to games in the UK and Chennai Super Kings were responsible for all of the opportunities. They aren’t just a part of my life, CSK and Dhoni are like my two very own eyes. Life wouldn’t have been the same without either,” says Saravanan.
2023 has been a unique season for the Chennai Super Kings. They are probably the only side to have played 14 home games because wherever they have travelled, the Yellow Army has followed. May it be the stands of Wankhede or Arun Jaitley Stadium, there has been a generous splash of yellow. Chants of “Dhoni, Dhoni” have only grown louder and every time he walks out to the middle or spotted on the giant screen, the buzz is absolutely electric.
There’s obvious disappointment in Saravanan’s tone because he’s not sure about Dhoni’s participation next year. Nobody is to be honest. He’s decided to foot the travel and accommodation from his own pocket as “homage to my idol”.
“2023 season might be Dhoni anna’s (brother) last season, I wished to shell out money from my own pockets to watch him play. So I have travelled using my own funds to travel and did not wish to bother CSK with it. (En thalaivan ku naan pannanum) I have to pay homage to my idol. This is my wish. (En kadavuluku naan than archana pannanum) I have to venerate my god. Not out of the coffers of anybody else though. Got to be out of my own pockets.
“This season has been a different experience according to me. CSK are the only team to have played 14 home games. Because CSK fans took over the away stadiums on match days too,” says Saravanan.
Saravanan reminisces about life before turning into a CSK and MS Dhoni Super Fan. How the times were tough, how people used to look down on him because of educational qualifications and the struggle to put food on the table. A lot, however, has changed from “That Saravanan” to “This Saravanan”. He is able to make ends meet for his family and at times feels jealous of himself.
“I feel jealous of me right now. I doubt at times if I am the same Saravanan as all those years back. I remember being looked down upon back in the day due to my educational qualification, that I’ve just cleared class 10. But things took their own course and thanks to the support of my friends I got into the space in am in right now. There’s a lot of difference between ‘that’ Saravanan and ‘this’ Saravanan. As I’ve already mentioned, none of this media and stuff would have been possible had I been the Saravanan of old. More than ‘Saravanan’ I like this face a bit more,” says Saravanan.
After initial hardships, everything has fallen in place for the Super Fan who doesn’t have to worry about making ends meet and can now travel abroad without second thoughts.
“A whole lot of things were altered in my life for the good. I have the luxury of doing nearly anything I want in life at the moment. I can travel abroad if I want to, even free of cost. That’s how much my life has turned around. Human being strive and toil hard to satisfy their bellies. And such a significant thing as food is available to me, without having to pay a penny these days. I do not know what more a man needs in life,” says Saravanan.
Saravanan’s six-year-old daughter is getting attached to cricket after seeing her father watch the games in proper “fan mood” and will soon start accompanying him. He doesn’t want to forcefully take her to matches and is happy to wait for the motivation to come from her.
“My daughter has started asking me to take her to games. I usually watch the games in a proper ‘fan-mood’. She is six years old and I would like to bring her along to a game. But, like I said, the motivation has to come from her and shouldn’t be forced.”
“But, I personally feel she will accompany me to the matches in the near future,” says Saravanan.
(The entire conversation happened in Tamil and was transcribed by CricketNext’s Vivek Ganapathy)