Sri Lanka regained their two-match advantage in the one-day series although were pushed closer that appeared likely for most of the chase before getting home with two balls to spare. The pursuit was controlled, for the most part, by Kumar Sangakkara's 86 but it needed another steely contribution from Angelo Mathews to ensure against any late slips.
Nothing seemed more certain than Sangakkara would seal victory with his 20th ODI hundred, but on 86 he found deep cover from a short delivery by Chris Jordan and could barely come to terms with the need to walk off. So instead it was Mathews and Lahiru Thirimanne who crossed the winning line with a stand of 53, never flinching when the asking rate briefly went above seven although Mathews was dropped at third man by Alex Hales with 25 needed. Given that England managed to squeeze the chase into the final over, they will rue the 12 wides which continued a theme from the series.
England now need to win the three remaining games, two in Pallekele and one more back at the Premadasa, if they are to take the series although with an eye to the future there were a couple of performances that meant it was not a completely forlorn day for them.
James Taylor, playing just his third ODI and first against anyone other than Ireland, top-scored with well-crafted 90 before cramp got the better of him and Eoin Morgan, the stand-in captain for the day, made his first ODI fifty since January with 62 off 47 balls as the rest of England's middle and lower order, losing 7 for 94, frittered away earlier good work.
The early new-ball bowling from Steven Finn and Chris Woakes was inconsistent and meant England did not build pressure, although they were perked up when Tillakaratne Dilshan carved into the off side. With two left handers now at the crease, Moeen Ali was brought straight into the attack and kept a lid on the scoring while also enticing Kusal Perera to edge to slip.
However, with each ball that gripped for Moeen it will have reinforced the belief that the balance of England's attack was wrong without the additional offspin of James Tredwell. Instead, they preferred to take another look at Ben Stokes whose two overs went for 21, after being the seventh bowler used, to take his series tally to none for 85 from eight overs.
From 69 for 2, and a potential opening for England, Sangakkara and Jayawardene added 96 with effortless accumulation, often toying with Morgan's attempts to cut off their scoring areas. One minute they would open the face to find space in the off side, and the next dinking into the leg side.
The signs of growing desperation were clear when England used their review against Jayawardene when he was 27, but discovered that even Joe Root was turning the ball too far. Given the ease with which Sri Lanka were batting, it was a surprise when Jayawardene chopped against Jordan, the pick of England's quicks. But Sangakkara just continued to cruise, the most adventurous shot he played an uppercut over the keeper against Woakes who, a short time earlier, had needed some treatment on a knee problem. Then Sangakkara's aberration left the majority in the ground stunned.
There was a sense of relief at the toss when it was confirmed that Taylor would play. If he had not been given his chance in the enforced absence of Alastair Cook because of a one-match suspension he would have been well within his rights to want to get on the next flight home.
Still, it is one thing getting the chance and another to take it. He was at the crease early, which could well have played to his advantage as he did not have much time to let the nerves build, after Alex Hales edged Dhammika Prasad's first legitimate delivery to slip.
There were some uncertain moments early in his innings and the initial stages were hard work as he reached 11 off 29 deliveries before he cashed in on Thisara Perera's first over. A bottom-handed flick from outside off over deep midwicket for six was the sort of stroke that peppered county boundaries during last season.
By the time Taylor found the boundary, he had lost Moeen, charging down the pitch at Dilshan, meaning the innings went into a rebuilding pattern as he was joined by Root. Boundaries were few and far between, and Taylor saved himself by using a review when he was given lbw to Jeevan Mendis on 35, only for there to be a clear bottom edge.
The scoring rate was given a jolt by consecutive sixes, Taylor driving Ajantha Mendis over long-off and Root following by clearing deep midwicket off Jeevan. The partnership ended on 93, England's best of the series, when Root's penchant for late-cutting the spinners off his stumps brought his downfall against Rangana Herath.
Taylor continued to punctuate his sprinting between the wickets with the occasional boundary, but the conditions were starting to take their toll and he twice needed lengthy treatment from the physio who was focussing on his left forearm. Later the cramp appeared to be spreading to his legs, and four balls after the second visit from the physio Taylor tried to clear the off side against Ajantha Mendis but could not beat the infield.
As so often, the batting Powerplay - taken one over before it had to be - was not England's friend. Five deliveries after Taylor departed to the relative cool of the dressing room, Ravi Bopara missed a quicker ball from Dilshan.
Buttler could not help set a target in the same way he had chased one down a few days ago as he picked out long-on with seven overs remaining. Stokes' international batting woes continued when he found deep square-leg, and with Morgan starting to find his stride the shot selection of Woakes and Jordan left something to be desired.
Mathews entrusted his spinners with the final 21 overs of the innings: for 20 of those overs there was barely any reason to question that decision as Herath returned a miserly 3 for 36 and Ajantha Mendis claimed 3 for 56. However, the first two balls of the last over - bowled by Dilshan - were slotted for six by Morgan and the over ended up costing 18. In the end it did not matter and the tricky decisions remain England's, including the pressing question of who misses out for the returning Cook in Pallekelle.