Marvan Atapattu played the major innings, an outstanding 132 not out, his second hundred in his 50th one-day international. Not only did he bat with a marvellous wristy flourish but he got the better of Darren Gough, who will confront him with the new ball in the Test match. Little victories like this made it an even more memorable day for the Sri Lankans.
There was, indeed, much more at stake for them than their main objective, winning the silver dhow and first prize of £15,000. They have rightly been greatly disappointed by the fact that England's administrators have been unable to offer them a tour here since 1991 and that once again a single Test is all they have been offered this time. Subject to the plans of the International Cricket Council to create some sort of rolling world championship of Test cricket, the England and Wales Cricket Board are planning to invite Sri Lanka back for a three-match home series in 2002.
It is seven years since they last toured and in that time they have become world one-day champions, a success they could well repeat next year if the force is with them and the weather dry. They will certainly not be frightened by the prospect of an opening match with England on this same ground when the tournament opens on May 14. England, on the other hand, might be if their ground fielding is as fallible as it was yesterday and unless they can find a way of turning good starts with the bat into much more substantial totals than the 256 they managed after Alec Stewart had won the toss yesterday.
The glaring weakness of England in limited-overs matches, even when they play at their best, is their lack of a top-class attacking spin bowler. The West Indies in the first two World Cups and India, with their wobbly medium-pacers in the third, showed that spin is not always essential but when a pitch allows significant turn as yesterday's did for a big spinner of the ball like Muralitharan, they are playing with less than a full box of tricks.
All was going smoothly for the home side until the rubber-wristed Tamil approached with his characteristic predatory walk to bowl his first spell. He did not at first take wickets but with his curvy flight and prodigious spin he immediately slowed the merry rate of scoring which Michael Atherton, duly recalled to the side in Adam Hollioake's stead, had achieved with Nick Knight in the early stages.
With long queues still waiting to get in, Atherton signalled his intentions by launching into his first ball and sending it skimming to the extra-cover boundary. A fierce cut followed and in getting to fifty faster than Knight at a run a ball with six sweetly-timed fours, the former captain demonstrated clearly enough that with three lions on his helmet he can play the role of the aggressive opener as well as anyone, especially when confronted with relatively ordinary opening bowlers like Pramodya Wickremasinghe and Suresh Perera.
Knight was never timing the ball as well as his partner but he placed the ball cleverly, especially off the back foot and even with only three fours he reached fifty from only four more balls, 65, than Atapattu did later for Sri Lanka. England had reached 132 in the 26th over when Atherton pulled Muralitharan to midwicket.
Arjuna Ranatunga was by now changing the bowling frequently, keeping his opponents guessing with slow-bowling changes which included two lesser-spinning off-break specialists in Kumara Dharmasena and Aravinda de Silva and some keen leg spin from Upal Chandana.
Stewart escaped when he drove on to his boot against Chandana when he had made eight and Kaluwitharana caught the rebound but he gave himself out caught off his glove as he swept and the rot really set in again when, with 11 overs still in hand, Graeme Hick had his off stump flicked by a gentle leg-break.
Knight, driving against the spin, was the victim of a marvellous, leaping caught and bowled and Nasser Hussain pulled and missed at his second ball. Despite some hefty blows from Alistair Brown, who at least scored at a run a ball as the later batsmen strove in vain to achieve the badly needed crescendo, England eventually managed only nine more than they had in the first match against Sri Lanka.
This time, crucially, they could not take a sufficient number of early wickets to make a successful defence of a total some 25 runs short of ideal. After two wides Gough raised some early patriotic fervour by swinging the new white ball between Sanath Jayasuriya's bat and pad as he drove at the second legitimate ball, but Atapattu was middling it as soon as he arrived.
He was the dominant partner in a second-wicket stand of 139 in 27 overs to which Romesh Kaluwitharana contributed with his customary array of uncompromising attacking strokes. When he eventually sliced Croft to Hick at deep point, de Silva assumed command and three brilliant strokes for four off the back foot off successive balls from Peter Martin in the 36th over seemed to put the issue beyond doubt.
Much credit was due now, however, to Stewart and his bowlers. Bringing his field in to invite the risky strokes, he persuaded de Silva to pull to square-leg and three overs later Ranatunga was dextrously caught by a diving Knight at slip.
An even more brilliant catch by Knight, this time diving in the deep, further encouraged the possibility of a surprise but Hashan Tillekeratne is a veteran of 165 previous 50-over internationals and he calmly helped Atapattu to the target.