India’s 400th ODI victory was significant not just for the statistical weight that the number represents, but also because it sealed their third bilateral series win on Sri Lankan soil. It took India 23 years to win its first bilateral series in Sri Lanka. That was in August 2008; in less than four years, they have added two more bilateral series wins in Sri Lanka.
The man under whom this unprecedented success has happened is none other than MS Dhoni. In August 2008, Dhoni led India to their maiden bilateral series win in Sri Lanka by a 3-2 margin. It was a success that surprised many, because India had been obliterated by Ajantha Mendis in their previous ODI encounter, the Asia Cup final, and were coming off a 2-1 Test series defeat in which Mendis was again the tormentor. The team was also without Sachin Tendulkar, and Virender Sehwag had been forced out the series on the eve of the first match in Dambulla.
Sri Lanka thrashed India in the series opener, bowling them out for 146 in 46 overs before skipping past the finish line with eight wickets and 91 balls remaining. The odds were stacked against India, they scrapped to a series-leveling win in the second game, this time bowling Sri Lanka out for 142 in 38.3 over with Zaheer Khan claiming four wickets. India's chase was not as straightforward as Sri Lanka's had been, but the debutant S Badrinath kept his nerve to score an unbeaten 27 and negate any further threat from Mendis.
A 2-1 lead came as the series shifted back to Colombo. Dhoni (76) and Suresh Raina (53) got India to 237 on a slow pitch at the Premadasa, and then the bowlers rallied to clinch a 33-run win. The series win came in the next match at the same venue, as India won by 58 runs. Fifties to young Virat Kohli, Raina and Dhoni formed the crux of India's 258, and yet again the bowlers did their job to bowl Sri Lanka out well short of their target. The fifth and final match was inconsequential, and Sri Lanka's bowlers secured a consolation win to ensure their side maintained its record of not losing four consecutive ODIs at home.
India toured Sri Lanka the following season and won 4-1. A strong chase in Dambulla gave India the first match by six wickets, with Gautam Gambhir, Raina and Dhoni doing the job after Sri Lanka made 246 with a nearing-40 Sanath Jayasuriya scoring his 28th century.
Back at the Premadasa, India made 256 with a single fifty – Yuvraj Singh's 66 – and held on for a 15-run victory with Ishant Sharma taking the Man-of-the-Match award for his four wickets. The series was attained four nights later by a 147-run margin, thanks to a strong batting performance. Centuries to Virender Sehwag (116 off 90 balls) and Yuvraj (117 off 95) powered India to 363 for 5; in reply, Sri Lanka were bowled out for 216. Pragyan Ojha's left-arm spin netted him 4 for 38 and Yuvraj took the wicket of Nuwan Kulasekara to pip Sehwag to the Man-of-the-Match award.
In the fourth ODI it was Gambhir's turn to pick up a century (150) as India marched to their longest winning streak – nine matches – with a comprehensive 67-run win. Chasing 333, 62 more than the highest-ever chased at the Premadasa, Sri Lanka started well but couldn't overcome India's medium-pacers. During this match, Murali became the highest wicket-taker in ODIs, going past Wasim Akram's haul of 502 wickets. Sri Lanka won the dead rubber by 68 runs, having made 320 – Tillakaratne Dilshan 97, Kumar Sangakkara 84 – before the bowlers collectively kept India to 252.
And now, in 2012, they have beaten Sri Lanka 3-1 with a game to spare. They bossed Sri Lanka in the series opener, were hammered in the second but in consecutive games have chased targets in excess of 250. Tuesday’s chase of 252 came with more than seven overs to spare.
Needless to say, teams under Dhoni have ensured success like no previous Indian team. Undoubtedly he has had a strong team, but there were strong sides to tour Sri Lanka in the past. While Dhoni is not singularly responsible for India’s success over the past four years in Sri Lanka, he has been an inspirational leader and key batsman. In 13 innings in bilateral series, he averages 48.72 with five fifties. His 536 runs are not just the most by an Indian in this period – Dhoni is the leading run scorer for India in bilaterals on Sri Lankan soil. Clearly, he has been a central figure in India’s run.
Winning in Sri Lanka doesn’t count nearly as much as wins in England, South Africa, Australia or New Zealand, but in helping change India’s fortunes in a country they historically struggled to win Dhoni has left an indelible mark.