The streets of Colombo were awash with English supporters tonight, not drowning their sorrows after being spun to the series defeat that had been widely anticipated by most Sri Lankans and many English four weeks ago, but loudly celebrating England's fourth series victory in succession after 22 wickets fell on the frantic third day of this Colombo Test Match.

Sri Lanka grasped back the initiative this morning, taking England's last six wickets for 74 runs, but then capitulated in spineless fashion in the afternoon and were bowled out for a lowly 81, the second lowest total in Sri Lanka's 19 year Test history.

Although Sri Lanka took six wickets in the 74-run chase, there was to be no final twist to a restless series, as Graham Thorpe, such an important factor in all three Test wins this winter and man-of-the-match in this game for his unbeaten 113 in the first innings and 32 in the second, guided them home in the twilight.

Ashley Giles finally hit the winning run in the last over of the day, at 12 minutes past six, paving the way for a triumphant charge back to the dressing room and a jubilant victory lap, the kind normally reserved for winning the World Cup, but well deserved nonetheless.

England's hard-fought victory brings to an end an astonishing turnaround in their cricketing fortunes. Twelve months ago it is inconceivable that England could win a series in Sri Lanka, a country where even the mighty Australians floundered two years ago. During the last year, however, the team has been transformed under the stern tutelage of Duncan Fletcher and shrewd leadership of Nasser Hussain and now plays with a vigour, intensity and self-belief hitherto thought to be the exclusive preserve of Antipodeans.

Now, when England's supporters screamed: "bring on the Aussies" from their corrugated iron stands, they did so with confidence and not the wishful optimism that has characterised English supporters of the last two decades.

History, too, will remember this team. It is the first time that England have won four series in succession since Mike Brearley's side in 1978/9 and the first time England have come back to win a three-Test series after losing the first game since 1888.

The success of Nasser Hussain's team is even more remarkable for the fact that it has involved two tours to the sub-continent where the cricket has been played on dusty pitches, in searing heat, against beguiling spinners and richly talented batsmen.

Nasser Hussain, who will bid farewell to the side in two days time as he returns to England because of his thigh injury, paid tribute to the efforts of the coach, back room staff and players: "All credit to the team for the way that they stuck at it, every time they have been asked tough questions, they have always come back. In the old days the wheels could have come off when he had gone one-nil down.

Like he did here and in Pakistan he preferred to play down the teams' chances against Australia next summer: "I am not going to give any bold headlines like 'bring on the Aussies' and stuff like that although we have had always had one eye on that series. We must think the same way as we did during the last four series."

Although the pitches have been loaded in favour of the spinners, it was once again England's fast bowlers that cut the belly out of the Sri Lankan batting. Armed with the new ball, Darren Gough, who was adjudged to have been the man-of-the-series, weathered some early blows from Sanath Jayasuriya to dismiss Marvan Atapattu for another duck (there were a record twelve ducks in the game and eight today) with a cleverly disguised slower ball. Andrew Caddick then forced Kumar Sangakkara into an involuntary poke six balls later before Gough trapped the Sri Lanka captain lbw, to leave Sri Lanka teetering on 24 for three.

Aravinda de Silva and Mahela Jayawardene added 33 runs and looked to have restored some order, before the second, this time terminal, collapse of the innings, as they lost three wickets for two runs. De Silva looked have the making of Caddick as he clumped two boundaries over square leg, but he too was deceived by a slightly slower delivery and clipped the ball to a diving Graham Thorpe at mid-wicket.

Russel Arnold followed soon after, the victim of the latest umpiring blunder. He was given out caught by a tumbling Hussain at slip. The decision had been referred to the television umpire, B.C. Cooray, by David Orchard to see whether the ball had been taken cleanly. Although television replays showed that Arnold may not have hit the ball, B.C. Cooray was powerless to over-rule Orchard and with the catch having been taken cleanly, he was forced to show the red light.

Mahela Jayawardene was lbw to Giles for 11 and Sri Lanka were 59 for six. The innings fell away. Chaminda Vaas was caught at backward short leg for six, Tillakaratne Dilshan was bowled by Giles for 10, Dilhara Fernando top edged a hook, and Muttiah Muralitharan had given up well before he played his reverse sweep.

England may have ruled the afternoon, but Sri Lanka had dominated the morning, as they took six wickets and dismissed England for 249. Chaminda Vaas was the chief destroyer in his own intelligently steady way. Rolling his fingers over the ball and subtly changing the pace, he ran through the English middle-order to finish with six for 73, his best ever bowling figures and his first five-wicket haul for five-and-a-half years.

The English innings was held together by Graham Thorpe's eighth Test century. He may have been fortunate to survive a bat-pad appeal when he had made 73 and a difficult stumping chance when he had 75, but thereafter he looked at ease, cleverly mixing his sweeps and cuts with careful defence.

Sri Lanka left the ground immediately after the game, shocked at the days' events and uncomfortable in front of the 2000 baying English supporters crowded in front of the pavilion. Dav Whatmore, his face paled by the drama, said afterwards: "This is gut wrenching for the side, but we only have ourselves to blame for our batting today. I thought that the longer the series went on the better they played."