The rumour doing the rounds in cricket circles lately is that England don't much like one-day cricket, they prefer the Ashes - you can't beat a coronary-inducing five-Test series after all. On the evidence of today's limp effort in a 20-run defeat to Sri Lanka at Lord's, the plane to Brisbane can't come soon enough, and how often have we said that in the past 20 years?
Before today, the opening one-dayer of the summer, England had lost 11 out of their last 15 one-day internationals against major Test-playing nations. In increasing that to 12, they appear to be on an endless uphill struggle to find their best one-day batsmen and bowlers, intent on filling the side with the 1990s staple diet of "bowlers who can bat a bit". Whatever happened to bowlers who could bowl a bit, and batsmen capable of hundreds? Sri Lanka, on the other hand, gave an excellent, professional and highly confident performance which ought to set them up perfectly for a series win.

Last week, Farveez Maharoof, Sri Lanka's allrounder, boldly claimed that while his team need to be patient in this transitional period (they have slipped to sixth in the world recently, a decade after winning the World Cup) they nevertheless have the ability to win the 2007 tournament in the Caribbean. Clearly his rallying cry was heeded by his team-mates who sensed a vulnerable and rather directionless England side. They didn't so much pounce on England, as trip them up with a slipper.

Curiously, all the pre-series talk of inexperience, for both sides, amounted to very little. Indeed, it was the inexperienced Upul Tharanga and Jamie Dalrymple, playing in his first serious ODI after making his debut against Ireland, who made their worldly-wise team-mates look rather less savvy than their hauls of wickets and mountain of runs might suggest. Tharanga batted solidly, if without the flair that he strives for and is capable of - but what a luxury for Sri Lanka to have a young opener making hundreds so early in his career. That he was benefited by a wayward, desperate England was by the by; Tharanga's determination shone as brightly as the June sunshine.

Though the sun shone, it might as well have been raining cats, dogs and even larger mammals for England who had a day to forget. Their limp, rusty scrape-of-a-win against Ireland was underwhelming enough; this was markedly worse. Today they relied on three men: Steve Harmison, Marcus Trescothick and Kevin Pietersen. When Andrew Flintoff returns, those four names conjure promise and excitement for the fans, and fear for the opposition. Yet when two of those fail in a single match, as happened today, England struggle hopelessly.
The precedent was set early by Harmison whose first over, although promisingly fast, was woefully inaccurate. Wobbly first overs happen from time to time, but Harmison is far too experienced a bowler to be so loose. With a minimum of just 18 games left before their opening World Cup match, their bowling attack could hardly be more unsettled.

Harmison was upstaged by his opposite number, the 22-year-old Lasith Malinga. His extraordinary horizontal-armed slingshots appear to be delivered from the umpire's midriff but, like all unorthodox bowlers, seem to have a habit of landing on a sixpence, or rising up into batsmen's throats. Playing in just his ninth one-dayer, he even out-bowled the old man himself, Chaminda Vaas, with a succession of moderate thunderbolts - including the wicket of Pietersen, expertly caught by Mahela Jayawardene. Indeed, speaking in the post-match conference, Jayawardene signalled his catch as the turning point in the match.

"I had to reach to grab it - I was going up and up and it still wasn't there," he said. "Those are the moments you cherish in your career because it does change [the] game for the team. In fact, I think all the guys fielded well, the standard is pretty good and we just need to keep it going."

Andrew Strauss, who made just 12, had a day to forget but he remained unfazed by England's dire performance.

"It was a big learning experience for us all, and hopefully we will be better on Tuesday," he said. "One-day cricket is about discipline - with our bowling and our batting. The bowlers, after a poor start, came back well in the second half and I'm still excited about the potential this squad has."

Excited Strauss might be, but it will take more than great potential to settle England's problems. Work must be done, and fast, if they are to avoid going 2-0 down to Sri Lanka on Tuesday.