England's goose is cooked

As and when England are finally put out of their misery in this series, the world rankings will reveal that their golden era is officially over. In one fell swoop, they will have slipped from No. 2 to No. 5, the result of two indifferent years since the 2005 Ashes in which they have lost 11 out of 27 Tests and won just eight.

None of those defeats, however, will have been as spineless and pathetic as this, the twelfth, threatens to be. If a decline was inevitable after the loss of so many stalwarts of the 2005 side, a capitulation most certainly wasn't. England were utterly abject on the third day at Galle. They were an embarrassment in the field, they lacked judgement at the crease, they were brainless between the wickets and their body language screamed surrender. Mahela Jayawardene accused them of "giving up" after yesterday's apathetic efforts, but it turns out there was an even deeper level of apathy to be attained.

"We're disappointed, simple as that," said Paul Collingwood, whose determined 29 was the closest that any of England's specialist batsmen came to respectability. "It's been two-and-a-half big days in the field and Sri Lanka came out and hit us pretty hard today. They bowled well with the new ball, took early wickets and put us under pressure. But we can't make excuses,. We haven't been good enough today and so far in the Test match we haven't been on the ball."

Collingwood is too honest to offer platitudes. He started to talk of showing "guts and determination, or whatever you want to call it," but smiled wryly as he said it, and eventually gave up pretending. "If we can get a draw from here it will be miraculous," was his later assessment. "I can't think of many worse days, and I've personally been through plenty in my career."

He certainly has. Collingwood was the man stranded on the sinking ship at Adelaide last winter, the last great nadir of England's post-2005 fortunes. But even that debacle somehow feels more forgiveable than this one. Australia are, after all, cricket's natural bullies, and in Shane Warne they had an opponent who loves nothing better than to prey on the meek and vulnerable.

Sri Lanka, of course, have their own champion spinner Muttiah Muralitharan, but today his only job was to extract the limpet-like Ryan Sidebottom, whose 70-ball innings used up more deliveries than six of the top seven combined. Instead England were scythed down by the medium pace of Chaminda Vaas, who sized up exactly where not to pitch the ball during his rollicking innings of 90, and then set about getting his line and length exactly right.

Only Collingwood and Kevin Pietersen could be exonerated in the manner of their dismissals - Pietersen received a brute from Lasith Malinga that hardly bodes well for England's survival prospects. But then again, what prospects? Christmas may still be five days away, but their goose is already cooked to a cinder. "These days hit you pretty hard but it's not for the lack of pride or passion," said Collingwood. "The desire is definitely there, but it's just been a bad day."

England are, however, all too prone to days such as these. Particularly on the subcontinent, and particularly when Christmas is just around the corner. Four years ago at Colombo, England slumped to their third-heaviest defeat of all time, having clung on to consecutive draws at Galle and Kandy. And in Pakistan in December 2005 - in a series that is panning out in a remarkably similar fashion - they were walloped at Lahore having entered the Test needing a win to square the series.

The class of 2005 were, however, good enough to beat Pakistan - they blew their chances with a careless collapse in the opening match at Multan, and then folded like a bored poker player. After all, they still had their Ashes winnings to fall back on. This new-look England, regardless of their efforts at Kandy, have not been equal to any of Sri Lanka's many challenges. Their collapse in this Test was a throwback to the dark days of the 1990s, when such disasters were two-a-penny.

Doubtless the itinerary will come in for some scrutiny - 15 days of Test cricket in 22 is a lot of hard yakka - but Collingwood disputed that the team were feeling the strain. "We felt pretty good coming into this Test match," he said. "We didn't feel we were on our last legs or anything. It is a very sapping environment to play in, with the heat and the conditions, and it can be tiring, but coming into the Test, we were pushing for a win, and we felt our momentum was good."

All of that momentum was squandered in the field, however, where England dropped as many catches as they held, including Matt Prior's reprieve of Jayawardene when he had added just five to his overnight 149. "Catching can be a confidence thing, and it can filter through the team when a couple go down," said Collingwood, but he reiterated England could have no excuses. "Sometimes you can benefit from these kind of lows, they can make you stronger and better in the future. But really I wish we hadn't had a day like this.

"It's as damaging as you want to make it," he added. "These days hurt, they really do, but we have to look at the bigger picture in the end. I still think we're moving in the right direction with the players we are bringing through." That's not, however, what the world rankings will be saying next week. England's most desperate performance of the year has confirmed what we've expected for a long time now. They've blown all their winnings of the last two years, and now it's time to start back at the beginnings.