Dhoni's batting and captaincy skills will both be tested over the next couple of weeks
On the eve of the five-match bilateral series, Sri Lanka and India both have problems to solve. The home team have had a patchy record in ODIs recently, which is reflected in the ICC ranking - they are seventh, compared to India's fourth. Their Asia Cup triumph was a return to winning ways after a home series defeat to England, followed by a poor CB Series, and then another series defeat to West Indies earlier this year.
However, Sri Lanka go into the five-match series a confident unit, having beaten India in the Asia Cup and the three-Test series before this. Mahela Jayawardene has stressed on how Sri Lanka need to improve on all areas of their game, and this is as good a time as any for them to put that theory into practice.
They could start with greater consistency and commitment from their batsmen, who would want to improve on their most recent performances in Dambulla, against England last year. In a span of four days, they were bowled out for 169
, losing both matches and eventually the series as well. The batting has been the main reason for Sri Lanka's below-par results recently, but for inspiration, they need look no further than the talismanic Sanath Jayasuriya and the destruction he wrought with his match-winning hundred in the Asia Cup final. Jayasuriya brings 526 games of experience to this side, and his explosive ability could well decide matches.
Sri Lanka's biggest assets are their two matchwinning spinners. Much of this series' storyline depends on how India cope with Muttiah Muralitharan and Ajantha Mendis, who is set to play his first ODI at home. India failed to find the answers in the Asia Cup final, and are up against a lethal pair that played havoc with a famed Test line-up, sharing 47 wickets between them in three matches.
For India, the main puzzle is how to handle Mendis. They had no idea about how to do that in the Asia Cup final last month, or in the Tests. There is little to suggest this series will be any easier, given that India's batting order for this series is the same as in Pakistan.
Part of Dhoni's method since taking over the captaincy has been to experiment with his batting line-up. Himself a regular floater, he has tried out different options at Nos. 3 and 6, not always with success. This bilateral series offers him another shot at finding solidity before a busy season ahead. Dhoni believes Sri Lanka is the toughest country to bat in, but is confident India will do better than they did in their last two series, especially when it comes to "crucial" matches. This has been identified as India's core ODI team for the future. It could be their toughest test.
Overall, India have been doing consistently better than Sri Lanka. After an abysmal first-round exit from last year's World Cup, they won the inaugural ICC World Twenty20, beat Australia in the best-of-three CB Series finals, and made the finals of the Kitply and Asia Cups. From the outset, India will start the series hoping to avenge a 100-run defeat to Sri Lanka in the Asia Cup final last month. "We are not doing too badly, it's just we are losing the key games," Dhoni said. "We shouldn't be too high or too low in confidence. We'll try to keep a positive frame of mind."
Apart from team skill, individual decisions are going to dictate this series. Jayawardene is a proven exponent of how to use the Powerplays and his experience of playing in Sri Lankan conditions, where the ball softens on slow and low pitches, could prove decisive. Dhoni relies a lot on instinct. His decision to play five bowlers at Hobart last year, keeping in mind ground conditions, worked a charm. Munaf Patel replaced an erratic Sreesanth and Praveen Kumar came in for Virender Sehwag. It didn't matter for Dhoni that Praveen had gone wicketless in a tight chase in Adelaide under lights; he entrusted Praveen with the new ball and it worked wonders.
Such calls are going to be crucial in Sri Lanka, a place Dhoni has readily admitted is tough to bat in. The first two matches - in three days - are in Dambulla, a notoriously spin-friendly track. Dhoni is inclined to use five bowlers for the two matches in Dambulla, two of them being spinners. The last three matches are day-night affairs at the R Premadasa Stadium in Colombo, another venue where scoring runs is difficult.
An intriguing contest is in store, which will be a test of both skill and nerve.
Jamie Alter is a staff writer at Cricinfo