Fans, noise, wickets and Ruturaj Gaikwad: IPL makes winning return to UAE

Chennai Super Kings restart with a win against Mumbai Indians thanks to player who suffered badly from Covid last year

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Every ticket was sold. Every seat that had been made available was filled.

Ahead of the start, fans raced up the up-ramp that leads to Dubai International Stadium wearing the vivid yellow of Chennai Super Kings, with “7 Dhoni” inscribed on their backs.

They were matched in noise and number by those clad in the blue of Mumbai Indians.

One young fan had even had “MI” shaved into his hair, with the lettering picked out in blue, especially for the occasion.

And the vast majority made it to their seats before the first ball was bowled. Which is more or less unprecedented at times when Indian cricket fan culture meets with rush hour on Hessa Street.

An excitable, reactive, manmade din bounced off the roof, rather than the canned crowd noise which had prevailed previously.

Even Ruturaj Gaikwad scored runs.

It is tempting on nights like this to make glib statements to the effect that nature is healing.

This is, after all, just a cricket match, being played in a tournament transposed to UAE solely because of the effects a deadly virus was having back in India.

There are more important things in life than the Indian Premier League.

But, on the night of its resumption in Dubai, it felt like this was a most welcome distraction from the serious stuff.

Those spectators who had won the mad rush for one of the 6,000 or so tickets online were give upper-tier seats at the old Emirates Road End of the ground. Spaces were set aside between allocated seats to try to enable social distancing.

This being the IPL, downstairs was given over to commerce. As in 2020, when the entire season was played behind closed doors in UAE, vast black fabric was stretched over all the lower-tier seats.

In front of that, 9ft high LED display screens showing team slogans and sponsor logos stretched halfway round both sides of the boundary.

The official car of the competition had a premium view, right in the hitting zone of right-handed batsmen.

Even the 22 yards of turf in the middle of the ground had some spice to it.

So much for arriving in the desert expecting arid conditions. The playing strip had more than a tinge of green to it, and the quick bowlers thrived as a result.

The fact it was Gaikwad who repaired the early damage inflicted on Chennai by Trent Boult and Adam Milne felt appropriate.

The last time the IPL was exiled to these shores, the young opener from Pune suffered the most among a number of Chennai tourists who contracted Covid.

He took 20 days to recover his health. By the time he did, his season was essentially ruined.

He took that knockback pluckily, suggesting the experience would make him tougher. Judged on the first day of his return to Dubai, he really is back stronger.

Facing the champion attack from last season, Chennai were in all sorts of bother, lurching to three for seven.

To all intents and purposes that was four for seven because Ambati Rayudu had retired hurt after being hit by Adam Milne. And not long after, MS Dhoni followed Faf du Plessis, Moeen Ali, Suresh Raina and Rayudu to the dressing room

Gaikwad, though, stuck it out, finding ever more resourceful ways to score, including a remarkable sweep off Jasprit Bumrah for four.

His 88 not out, including a six off the last ball of the innings, gave Chennai something to compete with - a total of 156-6.

As it turned out, it was far better than that. The defending champions - who, it would appear, are slow restarters as much as they are slow starters - never got going in their chase.

As it had been for Mumbai, it was the seamers who did the work for Chennai, with Dwayne Bravo taking three wickets, Deepak Chahar two, and Josh Hazlewood and Shardul Thakur one apiece.

The resultant 20-run win was not exactly the thrilling climax the sides of the IPL provided so often last season. But there will be plenty of time for that - and this time there will be people there to see it.

Updated: September 19, 2021, 6:40 PM