The 11th edition of Indian Premier League (IPL) may have begun on April 7, but for MS Dhoni and the Chennai Super Kings (CSK), the new season had seemingly started as early as in July last year.
A day after the Super Kings took to social media to announce their return from the two-year suspension, their celebrated skipper posed with the Yellow jersey with the word 'Thala', printed on it, sending the loyal fanbase into a frenzy.
Dhoni and his men, who had given their fans quite a lot to cherish in the first eight seasons of the cash-rich league, had to go through the agony of not representing the franchise in 2016 and 2017.
The World Cup-winning Indian captain, along with several of his former and current teammates, played for two different franchises during the two-year period.
Dhoni himself struggled to replicate the success he had enjoyed with CSK at Rising Pune Supergiant(s) in 2016 as the now-defunct franchise finished seventh on the eight-team table.
In the following season, much to the cricket fraternity's surprise, Dhoni was removed as captain of the franchise. RPS, under Steve Smith, reached the final but the Ranchi hero was a shadow of his former self at the Pune-based franchise.
Emotional build-up to CSK's comeback
Ahead of the recently-concluded season, even as a few teams made surprising retention calls, CSK focussed on emotional connect by retaining their core — Dhoni, Suresh Raina, and Ravindra Jadeja were their three retained players.
Chennai's adopted son was in the city quite a few times in the lead up to the IPL. A video of Dhoni getting emotional about CSK's return had gone viral on social media.
"What's important is to go through everything with a smile on your face but what's next is what is important for us. We are back, we are back," Dhoni reportedly said in the short clip.
The love and support the revamped Super Kings unit received from its fans is certainly one of the most heartwarming stories of IPL 2018. Around 10,000 fans reportedly were in attendance at the MA Chidambaram Stadium for the team's training session in the leadup to the season.
CSK treat fans to blockbuster opening match
Their first match on return to the league was a blockbuster. CSK were down and out against Mumbai Indians at the Wankhede Stadium. However, all-rounder Dwayne Bravo, whom they had retained at the auction, delivered in style by bailing the team out of trouble from an improbable situation.
CSK were well and truly back on that thrilling evening in Mumbai.
The comeback though didn't go entirely according to plan as CSK were forced to move out of Chennai after playing just one match at their home ground. Following protests due to Cauvery river-sharing issue, the Men in Yellow shifted their base to Pune.
However, that did not stop the CSK fans painting the Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium yellow as they traveled in large groups, at times in specially-hired trains, to Pune.
Deserved winners: CSK and their fans
The special bond between franchise, its captain, and the skipper was rewarded with a third IPL title on the night of the big final — Sunday, May 27.
The Super Kings hardly put a foot wrong over the last few weeks. Despite being criticised for assembling a squad with a lot of players aged 30 and above, Dhoni's men brought to use all the experience and delivered in style.
Unlike a few seasons in the past where they had scraped through to the knockout stages, CSK dominated IPL 2018 and qualified for the playoffs at the second spot on the points table.
They lost matches but, it seemed, never let the defeats affect them. They leaked runs but made up for it with their power-packed batting unit, which had a lot of seasoned campaigners.
Dhoni had more feistiness to his approach: Graeme Smith
Skipper Dhoni was leading from the front. He took fans down the memory lane by finishing matches at will. With the bat, he showed glimpses of his vintage self and ended the season with second best IPL tally of 455 runs at a strike rate of 150.66.
Dhoni did not hold himself back from having a go at his bowlers whenever they let the team down. It was evident that he demanded more from each and every one of the squad.
Former South African captain-turned broadcaster, Graeme Smith shed light on what was different with Dhoni in IPL 2018. Speaking to Star Sports after Sunday's final, the 37-year-old opined the Super Kings skipper was feistier than ever and that he had been an embodiment of the team's motivation.
"The motivation that they would have had going into this year's IPL, after being two years away, I think you could feel it through MS Dhoni throughout the season — in his performances, in his determination to be successful as captain," Smith said.
"He is always really understated. But this year he had a little more grit and determination, more feistiness because he wanted it [IPL title] so badly. He wanted more from his players, more from his team. And I think this [win] would have been a huge reward for him."
Smith also lauded the team culture at CSK, saying the time players were able to spend with their families during the season worked wonders.
"IPL has about 60 games, imagine how many flights they've got to take and how often they've got to be on the road. There is tremendous pressure and a lot of training. So it was wonderful for families to get to share these moments because the sacrifices they've made behind the scene are immense as well, Smith added.
"So great to see Chennai have valued the families and understood the role they play in the success of the team in Chennai."
Dhoni's 'yellove' rubs off on teammates
CSK were able to find new heroes with each and every game of the season. More often than not, individual brilliance helped them outclass oppositions.
Not long ago, the star of the big final, Shane Watson revealed how Dhoni's passion for CSK had rubbed off on his teammates.
Watson, it seems, had shared his captain's love for the franchise as he batted like a man possessed, hitting 117 runs, his second ton this season, in just 57 balls to knock the wind out of the Sunrisers on Sunday.
As it turns out, there is one more chapter in CSK's remarkable comeback story the team would be flying to Chennai to celebrate with "the fans and those close to the team".
"We go to Chennai tomorrow. Irrespective of the result, that was the plan. Go to Chennai, meet the fans and those close to the team," the skipper said minutes before lifting the trophy on Sunday.
It seems cricket fans in the Southern Indian city have got another opportunity to shower "Yellove". Both the Super Kings and their fans certainly deserved this fairytale comeback.