The tourists may be deserved world number ones and on their finest ever run of results in limited-overs cricket, but this crushing in Colombo was an unwelcome throwback to darker days.
In mitigation this was a ‘dead rubber’, the silverware already secured after three successive wins, but a margin of 219 runs on Duckworth-Lewis-Stern cannot be swept aside.
Sri Lanka’s 366-6 was easily their biggest ever total in the fixture, each of the top four scoring at least 50 as England’s decision to rotate their seamers yielded little but disappointment, and the response was entirely inadequate.
When a huge thunderstorm engulfed the Premadasa Stadium, ensuring a full-house of rain-affected finishes in the five-match series, England had crumbled to 132-9, five fewer than the opening partnership between Niroshan Dickwella and Sadeera Samarawickrama.
Captain Eoin Morgan, having left himself out to make room for others, is unlikely to do so again. For Tom and Sam Curran, the first brothers to play in the same England side since the Hollioakes in 1999, the result spoiled a nice entry for the family scrapbook.
Sam had been given a chance to audition for next summer’s World Cup squad, but his new-ball partnership with the recalled Mark Wood was expensive and wicketless.
Dickwella and Samarawickrama piled on 72 in a bruising 10-over powerplay and continued taking all-comers on their way to a buoyant stand of 137.
The pitch was looking flat, but so were England, whose middle-overs enforcer Liam Plunkett was unable to put a lid on Dickwella’s ebullience.
When the breakthrough did come in the 20th over even the umpires needed to double check, with replays required to confirm Moeen Ali’s delivery grazed off stump after beating Samarawickrama (54).
Moeen also managed to prise out Dickwella, who looped a simple catch off the toe end after moving within one sturdy blow of a third ODI century.
By then Dinesh Chandimal (80) had already been dropped twice in single figures, by Tom Curran at long-off and Wood diving forwards in vain.
It proved costly, as he joined with Kusal Mendis in a stand of 102 in 76 balls. Chandimal was livelier than usual, not least when reverse-sweeping Adil Rashid into the stands, but it was Mendis who hit a new gear with six maximums in his 56.
It was apparent at the turnaround the chase would need to be a record one, England’s biggest ever by 17 runs, but Sri Lanka needed just 10 balls to extinguish hope.
Kusan Rajitha got the ball rolling by toppling Jason Roy with a textbook yorker and Dusmantha Chameera followed up by taking Alex Hales’ edge with a full, swinging delivery. Samarawickrama flung himself into a fine catch to complete the job.
If Jos Buttler was watching he did not heed the lesson, prodding at a near identical delivery two balls later for a matching duck.
At 4-3, England were playing for dignity. Joe Root’s dismissal for 10, carving Chameera to point, made even that look a long shot.
The game was crying out for a counter-attack and Stokes supplied one, despite needing regular treatment on his right calf. Whether it was cramp or an impact injury, the all-rounder battled through, hitting 12 boundaries in his 67 to ease his workload between the wickets.
He and Moeen (37) saw England past three figures, but it was all in vain, with only the cracks of lightning denying Sri Lanka all 10 wickets.
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