England had nothing left to give
There have been some traumatic defeats in the past four days of World Cup action. Ricky Ponting and Graeme Smith were visibly shattered by the manner in which Australia and South Africa were ousted from the tournament, while a furious Ottis Gibson promised that heads would roll following West Indies' spineless surrender in Dhaka.
Try as one might, however, it was hard to detect anything approaching the same regret and recrimination in the voices of Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower as they surveyed the wreckage of England's own campaign. Their ten-wicket margin of defeat was as abject an exit as any team could have hoped to muster, and yet it felt more like a mercy killing than a massacre.
In a peculiar sense, the collapse of England's resolve in Colombo served to emphasise the effort that went into staying in the tournament in the first place. The team that had fought tooth and nail to reach the knock-outs, and had responded so gamely to a double dose of humiliation at the hands of Ireland and Bangladesh, found it had nothing left to give when the relief of qualification changed the dynamic of their campaign.
Reaching the knockouts had been the bare minimum that England needed to preserve their professional pride - anything they could have pulled off from that point onwards was a bonus rather than a necessity. "It would be nice to win the World Cup," was the gist of the message coming out of a jaded squad, and though it is true that hope springs eternal, rare are the occasions on which a wing and a prayer are enough to carry the day at the highest level, especially against such mesmerically talented opponents as Sri Lanka proved themselves to be.
It takes more than a sense of entitlement to lift cricket's biggest prizes, and that is a fact that will surely be proven once again in the coming week. Australia, for instance, developed a divine-right attitude to the World Cup in the course of their 12-year unbeaten run, but that was merely their stance of last resort when times got tough - in the Edgbaston semi in 1999, for instance, or at Port Elizabeth four years later. The rest of the time, they reiterated their stature as the world's greatest team by crushing everyone who dared to challenge them.
By 2011, however, when Ponting's will power alone proved insufficient to overcome India in Ahmedabad, the fault lay not with the mentality of his men, but in the fact that the current vintage is not a team capable of world-beating. The same proved to be true for England's cricketers on Saturday night. In spite of the efforts the management took to swim against the tide of precedent, it was uncanny how 2011 took on the same resigned character as England's most recent World Cup campaigns.
Their tally of 12 boundaries in 50 overs, for instance, revived memories of their one-paced surrender against the same opponents in Faisalabad in 1996 - even though Mike Atherton's men actually fared better in all respects, scoring more boundaries (18), more runs (235) and claiming more wickets (five) in a run-chase that lasted seven more deliveries; which begs the question, with a lack of power in the batting and minimal mystery with the ball, how far has their one-day cricket actually developed in the interim? And just as in 2003 and 2007, when the campaign followed hot on the heels of an Ashes winter, the sadness of continued failure was quickly superseded by the relief of being able to down tools and relax.
Five long months ago - lest it be forgotten - England began their winter with an alchemic blend of excellence and flinty-eyed surety, as they laid to waste Australia's 24-year dominance in home Ashes series in one of the most accomplished sporting campaigns ever conceived. Nothing whatsoever was left to chance. The squad was selected to provide tailor-made bowling resources for each of the five venues, from Chris Tremlett's extra height on the bouncy WACA track to Tim Bresnan's dead-deck stamina at the sluggish MCG, while the itinerary was conceived to provide the optimum opportunity for acclimatisation, with warm-up games at three of the five Test venues.
It was all so magnificently planned, in fact, it makes the ad hoc nature of England's subsequent World Cup campaign look like a cry for help. England could, and surely would, have given the tournament the respect and attention it deserved, had it not been for the crass nature of an itinerary that, in the immediate aftermath of the Colombo defeat, Atherton found himself once again railing against in his role as a Sky Sports pundit.
Much has changed in the 15 years since Atherton led England to their last subcontinental World Cup thrashing, and most of it - central contracts, dedicated support staff, hotel accommodation befitting a national team - has undoubtedly been for the better. But the treatment of the tournament as an end in itself rather than an adjunct in an over-extended itinerary is something that will not occur until 2015 - and even then, the welcome news of the rescheduling of that winter's Australia tour comes with a caveat, namely 15 Ashes Tests in the space of two over-stretched years.
Something will have to give, and in the short term it will surely be the one-day careers of a host of performers who deserved a better ending to their odyssey. Paul Collingwood has reached the end of the line in all formats, with his tally of ODI caps surely set to stall on 197. Kevin Pietersen, whose one-day retirement was rumoured to be looming long before he took leave of the squad for a hernia operation, might not be far behind. And then there's the captain, Strauss, who produced the innings of his life to set up the tie against India, but who will be 38 by the time of the next World Cup, and who will surely follow the example of Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan before him, and use the end of this four-year cycle as a reason to concentrate on his Test career.
England's endeavours this winter do not deserve to be tarnished by the manner in which it ended, even though Colombo - like Faisalabad before it - is sure to be recalled as a caveat by the wider world, who do not view all of cricket through an Ashes-shaped prism, and therefore cannot appreciate how a bilateral contest between two mid-ranked Test nations can possibly take precedence over a global event with an audience in the billions. And yet it does, and rightly so in the opinions of all those England fans who stuck matchsticks under their eyelids and cracked on through the night to suck up the glory of Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney.
The toll that series took on England was extreme. Among other side-effects, it confirmed the end of Collingwood as an international force, thereby hobbling one of the central planks of their one-day strategy. It sated Pietersen's ambition and left him incapable of full concentration even before his hernia problem was revealed, and it reduced James Anderson to such an exhausted shell that, even after the loss of Stuart Broad to a side strain, he could not be trusted to spearhead England's bid for the knock-outs, with Tremlett called upon in both Chennai and Colombo.
All in all, it has been a journey of self-discovery for England's cricketers this winter - some of it euphoric, some of it undeniably dark. Of the 30-odd players who set off from the UK in late October to prepare themselves for their various roles in the ascent of their sporting twin peaks, one has come out as gay, one has admitted to suffering from depression, two - Anderson and Graeme Swann - have new-born children to whom they have barely been introduced. The wonder is that, amid all of this and more, their focus somehow managed to be extrapolated for as long as it was. England's stated aim is to become the No. 1 team in the world in all disciplines, but even Usain Bolt requires a chance to take stock between one title and the next.
"People see the luxury lifestyle, playing sport for a living, but they don't see the dark hours stewing and thinking of family, being under constant scrutiny," wrote Collingwood in the Mail on Sunday. "Ten years ago, our captain, Nasser Hussain, said we were playing too much. It frustrates me that we seem to be doing even more." And if that is misinterpreted in some quarters as an excuse for failure, then England will probably not care in the slightest. They are just glad it's all over. The challenge for the ECB - and for other boards who may find themselves conducting similar post-mortems in the coming weeks - is to ensure their players are never again put in a position where glory goes so unacknowledged that falling short somehow seems preferable.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo