A little under a year ago, on the eve of the first of five one-day internationals against Sri Lanka, India received a blow with the news that Virender Sehwag had twisted his ankle at practice. Today they found out that Gautam Gambhir had aggravated a groin injury and would fly home. It was impossible not to feel the déjà vu.
Gambhir's groin injury has left India with another headache - Sehwag is already absent with a shoulder injury - but MS Dhoni put faith in the services of Rahul Dravid and the other batsmen. Part of Dhoni's method since taking over the captaincy has been to experiment with his batting line-up. He has tried out different options at No. 3 and not always with success, but backed a flexible line-up to absorb the pressure.
"Dravid is the ideal No. 3, especially in such conditions and during the evening when the ball swings and seams, so definitely he we will bat at that position," he said. "Of course, you get conditions when there are fewer overs and higher asking rates, so then you shuffle and shift. We don't have a fixed order: [Suresh] Raina, Rohit [Sharma], Yuvraj [Singh], myself … we have all batted at No. 3. It's not too much of a worry."
And while admitting that Gambhir would be missed, he said that he was focused on the personnel available. "When someone is injured you can't do anything, even though you have taken precautions in training. We hope he's fit for the Champions Trophy. This gives someone else a chance he would not have got had Gambhir played. It's a chance to prove yourself and that's something we've done well in the past; the ability of a player to fill another's shoes."
When asked about the void left by the loss of both openers, he was quick to point out that the most successful batsman in ODI history is still here. Dhoni's vote for the man to partner Sachin Tendulkar was Dinesh Karthik - who he said was "doing very well in the nets" - because of his success in the role in the West Indies recently. The replacement scheduled to land in Sri Lanka is Virat Kohli, who opened in five ODIs here last year, but, as Dhoni firmly reminded everyone, he is not an opener.
India have had almost a two-month gap since their last assignment, a one-day series in the West Indies they won 2-1. Since then they have had time off, conditioning camps, fitness assessments, and then the inaugural Corporate Trophy. Dhoni reckoned the players looked fit and that the break from competitive cricket would have helped.
"I'd say we're fresh, but that depends on the match result. If we win, you'd say we're fresh but if we lose, we're rusty. The Corporate tournament helped those who played, and I'm not worried about what people will say. We need to put in more effort than we did in the West Indies. The energy is definitely up, so is the intensity. We've got back-to-back games, which is challenging."
India, at No. 2 in the ICC's ODI rankings, have done very well in Sri Lanka recently, winning their last two series, but Dhoni said the opportunity to move to No.1 was no added pressure. "We're not worried. If we do well on the field, rankings and ratings will take care of themselves. The rankings will only come after the series. We take it game by game. Our first priority is to reach the final. Sri Lanka is a difficult place to play cricket but we have the potential and talent to do well here."
The tri-series itself is a rarity in today's cricket calendar - India have played two in the last two years. They altered their itinerary to play back-to-back matches to accommodate an extra rest day, and there are questions about the logic of cramming in a brief series in Sri Lanka before the Champions Trophy in South Africa, where conditions will be different.
Dhoni, though, was confident of India's chances to win despite the short time-span. "In bilateral series, as they progress, you see how a player does, so subconsciously you put in plans. In a competition where there are more teams, you have to be fully prepared from the start," he said. "You can come up with plans but on the day it gets tough. If you have a plan A, you'd better also have a plan B. We've not played many tri-series, it's been mostly bilateral series. It's not very common for us."