Even before the women's IPL exhibition match had ended and with about two-and-a-half hours left for the first qualifier to start, numerous fans were thronging at a stall near the staircase of the Sachin Tendulkar Stand at Wankhede Stadium. The stall was not giving away free merchandise, it wasn't selling water or ice-cream on a hot summer afternoon, it was selling jerseys of a team that was not even playing at home.
Chennai Super Kings had already seen unprecedented support in the form of a chartered train taking ardent fans from Chennai to their new headquarters Pune. And when they left Pune to play the qualifier in Mumbai on Tuesday against Sunrisers Hyderabad on a neutral ground, the crowd that had filled half of the stands well before the first ball was bowled made it clear whom they were rooting for.
"One young fan finally stopped a man selling Sunrisers stuff but it wasn't to do business. It was to ask directions"
Two minutes before the toss, loud chants of "Dhoni, Dhoni" filled the stadium even though two captains walked out, not one. More fans were trickling into the stadium now in a sea of yellow from all sides. Some of the security personnel frisking them at the entry gates wore yellow bibs like traffic police to differentiate them from the general public, but the colour wasn't helping.
In comparison, there were barely any Sunrisers fans. Forget fans, there were not even enough suppliers of their merchandise in case there was a large contingent to support them. A few young men selling orange flags were scattered around the entry gates but they had more time to kill than a retired person. One young fan finally stopped a man selling Sunrisers stuff but it wasn't to do business. It was to ask directions.
If the scant Sunrisers fans had hopes that a solid start would garner support from some neutral supporters, they were thwarted when Shikhar Dhawan was bowled off the first ball by Deepak Chahar. The medium-pacer couldn't contain himself. He was like an erupting volcano. Four overs later, Sunrisers were 36 for 3, and their fans might have contemplated leaving the ground already to drown their sorrows in a south Bombay pub or sitting by the sea to contemplate how things got so bad for such a good team.
Almost an hour later, Yusuf Pathan struck a four against Shardul Thakur and the announcer at the ground saw an opportunity to create some support for Sunrisers. He screamed "Yusuf" in anticipation of hearing "Pathan" but he got nothing. When Yusuf took strike again in the next over, the announcer tried again, this time with, "We want " but the nobody said "sixer". Nobody could hit one anyway.
The hordes of CSK fans were having a party though. When Yusuf handed a return catch to Dwayne Bravo, who tumbled but quickly got up for his Run D World celebration, the crowd joined him too. They didn't wait for the DJ to play a song, they had their own. May for Mumbai is the worst month to dance or even stand in the open, but these people were breaking into a jig even between overs, a time usually used to buy water or save energy. It didn't matter whether they were from Mumbai or had come all the way from Chennai, they were ready to dance to the Punjabi numbers the DJ was playing. Which team does a neutral fan support anyway in the playoffs once his home team is knocked out?
The biggest cheers and chants came in the second innings, when Dhoni walked out again. It was only the fourth over of the innings, Siddarth Kaul was on a hat-trick but all of that didn't matter. The man they had come to see was there now, but he couldn't stay long. There was deafening silence in the ground as Rashid Khan bowled the CSK captain with a beautiful googly.
The legspinner even won an lbw appeal against Faf du Plessis. The batsman decided to review. The crowd found its voice again. Ball-tracking showed it would be 'missing'. Wankhede roared once more.
By the time local boy Shardul edged two consecutive fours at the beginning of the 19th over and took CSK closer to home, the crowd had become merciless. When du Plessis struck a straight six to seal their final berth, a charged-up Imran Tahir leapt out of his seat just like the thousands of fans around him. Du Plessis' team-mates ran towards him the way fans run after their favourites when they spot them in public. Thakur hugged the match-winner and shook him in his arms the way the stands shook because of the jumping crowd.
A good hour and a half after the match had ended, the same stands had emptied out, the last few lights at the stadium had gone off and there was such peace at the ground, as if nothing had happened that evening. Except in the CSK dressing room - the players were still there, celebrating yet another close finish in Mumbai, dancing and soaking in the moment before they start thinking of the next step, the next match. And if they keep pulling off such great escapes, those fans will keep turning up in the yellow jerseys and will keep supporting the team that finds support no matter where they go.