Alastair Cook was left to rue a chanceless Kumar Sangakkara century that ensured England’s Champions Trophy semi-final pursuit would go down to the wire.
The tournament hosts appeared on course to seal a last-four berth, and eliminate an extremely dangerous side in the process, when racking up 294 for six at The Oval.
But a brilliant 134 not out from Sangakkara helped Sri Lanka to a remarkably comfortable seven-wicket victory with 17 balls to spare.
Cook said: “The difference was an outstanding hundred from an outstanding cricketer.
“Sometimes you can come up short against a guy that plays as well as that and not feel too bad.
“We tried a few different things, but he got 130-odd not out and did not give a chance. It was a very fine hundred.”
The result means England will need to beat New Zealand in Cardiff on Sunday to be sure of progressing.
“I am not too disappointed; clearly we had an opportunity to get into the semi-finals today and we did not quite take it,” added Cook. “But we have got another one in our next game.”
England’s qualification hopes going to the last game did not appear likely after Ravi Bopara’s brilliant 13-ball 33 not out had secured what looked a good total.
“It was about par,” said Cook. “But 300 wins you a lot of games of cricket. It didn’t today because of a very fine hundred from Sangakkara.”
Sri Lanka, having lost to the Black Caps in their opening game, need to emerge victorious in their final Group A encounter against Australia on Monday.
Yet the perennial challengers in major tournaments will be buoyed having beaten England in such convincing fashion when facing elimination.
“We have got to keep playing well throughout tournaments like this because every match counts,” said Sangakkara.
“Playing against Australia, hopefully now that we’ve understood how to win one game, we can convert that into a second.”
The other members of their Big Three, Tillakaratne Dilshan and Mahela Jayawardene, also made significant contributions, while Nuwan Kulasekara – bravely promoted to number five in a pinch-hitting capacity – struck a quite brilliant 38-ball 58 not out.
It was Sangakkara’s innings that was the difference, though.
He added: “Every hundred is satisfying in a different way, but especially if you go it in a winnings cause. I am pretty happy.”
Sangakkara also paid tribute to skipper Angelo Mathews for his brave decision to send Kulasekara up the order.
“It is strange isn’t it? If that didn’t work, the team would have been torn to shreds. Angelo would have taken some criticism saying, ‘what was he doing or what were the coaches thinking’,” Sangakkara added.
“But if it does work, it’s fantastic. Decisions like that can go both ways but I thought it was really strong of Angelo and the coaches to take that decision.
“It was great to see how it worked. Kulasekara batted very sensibly and that’s why it worked. It would have been easy for him to come in and try to hit every ball but he batted sensibly through the powerplay and accelerated after.”