There was a short period yesterday, a little longer than the blink of an eye, when it seemed that England might create history. They were batting more sensibly than they had all winter, they had six wickets in hand, Jonathan Trott had reached a century of virtuous self-denial, they needed barely a hundred more runs to win the first Test.
Then they capsized. Within 14 overs and for the addition of only 31 runs it was all done. Sri Lanka were the victors by 75 runs on the fourth day and England had lost their fourth Test match in succession, none of which they have managed to take to a fifth day.
Something, it is possible to deduce, is wrong. The story was much as it has been all winter. England were defeated by spin. All 10 of their second-innings wickets fell to slow bowling. They were vanquished this time by the pairing of Rangana Herath, who took 6 for 97 giving him match figures of 12 for 171, and Suraj Randiv, who snaffled the other four, including the last two in successive balls.
They are respectable practitioners both, no more, with Herath perhaps a little more respectable than Randiv. But England played them as if they were a combination so devilish that batsmen are afraid to go to sleep at night for fear of waking in a cold sweat at the prospect of facing them: "Not Rangana and Suraj, give me waterboarding, give me anything but them."
It cannot and it should not go on like this. Of course, continuity is a significant factor in honing a winning team but the idea that it is acceptable to say that a losing team are still the best team has a distinct lack of currency. If England fail to win next week and thus lose the series they will lose their No 1 status. The men who took them there have taken them away from there much more quickly.
Some of the manners of departure were unfortunate but in almost every case they could be traced back to batsman error. Such has been the way of it since England landed in the United Arab Emirates as the newly installed No 1-ranked team in the world. There they fell foul of Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman; they were confident it could not happen again.
For a while, before and after lunch yesterday, Trott and Matt Prior gave England cause for optimism. It was not flawless because Trott was dropped on 62 when Herath failed to hold on to a return catch. But they were chugging along pleasantly, batting naturally, batting at the pace and in a style that might have been devised for securing a draw, but knowing that if they stayed in they would score enough to win.
It was as though they had made a pre-ordained plan to get 'em in singles. At last, here was the composure that international batting requires. It had not been demonstrated earlier in the day by Kevin Pietersen, who advanced down the pitch in the third over and hacked to short midwicket, or by Ian Bell, who was probably unlucky to be given out lbw but played a careless, flimsy paddle shot which invited the appeal.
But England had seemingly overcome their needless departures. When Trott swept Herath firmly behind square to bring up his seventh Test hundred, from 240 balls, Sri Lanka might have been running out of ideas. That England had never previously lost when Trott made a hundred merely enhanced the belief that a target England had never previously made to win a Test match could be attained.
Four balls later everything changed. Prior swept at Herath and the ball went from the toe of the bat to short leg, where it struck Lahiru Thirimanne in the tummy. It was a soft landing, which helped the fielder to grasp instinctively for the ball and hold on.
Samit Patel came and went, blinking nervously all the while, and drove to cover. But if Trott could stay and England could assemble one more partnership anything was still possible. Sri Lanka, after all, have become unaccustomed to winning Test matches. He could not, they could not.
All day, Mahela Jayawardene had set cunning fields and Trott fell into his trap. There were four men prowling on the leg side as Randiv came round the wicket. Trott fended off his hip and was caught round the corner. He had 10 fours and 56 singles, the latter more finely crafted than the former.
That was that. Graeme Swann swept brutally across the line and never had a prayer of his review of the lbw decision being upheld. Jimmy Anderson and Monty Panesar obligingly edged off-spinners to slip and gully respectively. No doubt the bowlers have had enough by now. The poor bloody infantry have been thoroughly let down by the officer johnnies.
It would have been pertinent to ask the selector on tour what he thought should happen now, either to defend the present policy on the grounds that it really would come out all right in the end (however long it took) or to discuss the possibility of replacements sometime after this tour. But that was not possible.
It remains official policy for England to have a selector in attendance for most of the time home and away. It was one of the fundamental principles of the detailed Schofield Review published after England were whitewashed in Australia five years ago.
But success before this winter has perhaps eroded the need for it. The system might have been allowed to become sloppy. The chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, Giles Clarke, is here but there is no selector, except for Andy Flower, the coach.
Perhaps the others are at home in England, limbering up for the Championship season, which starts on 5 April. They will need to be there and they will need to take copious notes of all and any potential international candidates, and they ought not to come away empty-handed.
Four to follow: Batting contenders
The diminutive batsman played the best innings I saw (by a non-England player) last summer, when he took 70-odd off Sri Lanka's second string playing for England Lions, the team he captains. He has shown his ambition by switching from Leicestershire to Nottinghamshire in the First Division of the County Championship and is probably earmarked by the selectors as the next cab off the rank.
OK, he played in the Galle Test but he was given an odd role, batting at No 7 and sending down a few overs of spin as the fifth bowler. But he is a genuine batsman (who averages 40 in first-class cricket) and could get a proper go higher up the order.
The fiery Yorkshire redhead burst on to the England scene in limited-overs cricket. Since then he's found life a little tricky, but he probably has the talent – and the temperament – to succeed at the highest level.
Another Yorkie. A young man who could well replace Andrew Strauss, although preferably not now. Sound judges such as Michael Vaughan have earmarked him for the top.
Timeline: How fourth day unfolded
5.44am (UK time): England 118-3 Kevin Pietersen 30
England receive an immediate setback as Pietersen plays a poor shot across the line and weakly sends the ball spinning into Jayawardene's hands at midwicket.
6.51am: England 152-4 Ian Bell 13
Bell is the latest victim of the Sri Lankan spin assault. Bell is livid – feeling he inside edged on to his pad – but a review cannot save him and the tourists are struggling.
9.19am: England 233-4 Jonathan Trott reaches 100
England are daring to hope as Matt Prior and Jonathan Trott show grit and class to push the score along. Trott sends the ball sailing to the boundary to bring up his century.
9.21am: England 233-5 Matt Prior 41
Just as hopes are raised, Prior gets carried away. Another sweep shot and a remarkable catch by Thirimanne at short leg sends the England keeper back to the pavilion.
9.50 and 9.58am: England 252-6, 256-7 Samit Patel 9, Trott 112
Patel and Trott fall in quick succession to spin twins Rangana Herath and Suraj Randiv, signalling the end of England's hopes.
10.11am: England 259-8 Graeme Swann 1
It is now just a matter of time. Attempting an ugly swing across the line, Swann is palpably leg before wicket and has to go despite a pointless review.
10.34 and 10.37am: England 264-9, 264 all out Anderson 5, Panesar 0
A valiant last-day effort, but the final two wickets fall quickly to give Sri Lanka victory – Randiv taking both to end with 4 for 74.
Facts in figures
210-9 England's previous top fourth innings score in Galle - in December 2003.
12.50 Kevin Pietersen's Test average across the Pakistan and Sri Lanka tours.
1 Number of tons by England in Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
50 Years since a left-arm spinner prev-iously took 10 wickets v England.
52 Ian Bell's first-dig 52 is his only half-century in his last eight innings.
9 Sri Lanka's victory was their first in nine home Tests since Mutt-iah Muralitharan's 2010 retirement.
First Test, Galle International Stadium (fourth day of five): Sri Lanka beat England by 75 runs; Sri Lanka won toss
Sri Lanka: First Innings 318 (D P M D Jayawardene 180, Anderson 5-72)
England: First Innings 193 (Bell 52, Herath 6-74)
Sri Lanka: Second Innings 214 (H A P W Jayawardene 61no, Swann 6-82)
England: Second Innings Overnight 111-2
I J L Trott c Dilshan b Randiv 112, 266 balls 10 fours
K P Pietersen c D P M D Jayawardene b Randiv 30, 68 balls 4 fours
I R Bell lbw b Herath 13, 34 balls 1 four
†M J Prior c Thirimanne b Herath 41, 88 balls 3 fours
S R Patel c Dilshan b Herath 9, 25 balls
S C J Broad not out 5, 12 balls
G P Swann lbw b Herath 1, 9 balls
J M Anderson c H A P W Jayawardene b Randiv 5, 6 balls 1 four
M S Panesar c Dilshan b Randiv 0, 1 ball
Extras (lb6 w1) 7
Total (99 overs) 264
Fall 1-31, 2-48, 3-118, 4-152, 5-233, 6-252, 7-256, 8-259, 9-264.
Bowling U W M B C A Welegedara 13-2-40-0 (3-1-13-0; 2-1-3-0; 6-0-14-0; 2-0-10-0), R A S Lakmal 10-5-22-0 (3-1-9-0; 4-3-1-0; 3-1-12-0), H M R K B Herath 38-9-97-6 (14-3-51-2; 1-0-1-0; 16-5-28-1; 7-1-17-3), TM Dilshan 12-1-25-0 (8-1-13-0; 1-0-1-0; 3-0-11-0), S Randiv 26-2-74-4 (w1) (5-1-10-0; 9-1-35-1; 4-0-8-0; 2-0-4-0; 6-0-17-3).
Progress Day Four England: 150 in 57.4 overs, Lunch: 177-4 in 70 overs (Trott 76, Prior 15), 200 in 78.5 overs, 250 in 92. overs, Tea: 259-8 in 97.5 overs (Broad 5). Trott: 50 112 balls (7 fours), 100 240 balls (10 fours).
Umpires Asad Rauf (Pakistan) & R J Tucker (Australia).
Third umpire B N J Oxenford (Australia).
Match referee J Srinath (India).Reuse content