England's batsmen again showed their frailties against spin on the subcontinent as Sri Lanka's Rangana Herath and Suraj Randiv claimed all 10 second-innings wickets between them.
Only one player showed the temperament, composure and sound judgement to provide a significant resistance as Jonathan Trott compiled a very fine 112 which, in the context of a fourth-innings knock, was hugely impressive.
Trott showed the other England batsmen what was required of them as his gutsy, defiant innings threatened to deny Sri Lanka a victory they always looked likely to secure.
Indeed, without the number three's significant contribution, the tourists would have floundered 187 runs adrift of their opponents and suffered an ever more ignominious start to the two-Test series.
England have now suffered four Test defeats on the bounce this winter with the status of the world's top-ranked side in the format under serious threat ahead of the second match in Colombo, starting on April 3.
It was another Test match of 'what ifs' for England as the tourists again failed to play spin bowling on the subcontinent, and Herath and Randiv were the beneficiaries.
Herath claimed 12 wickets in the match - astonishing figures for a spinner who is not in the same class as England's nemesis in the UAE, Saeed Ajmal, and had not previously claimed a 10-wicket haul.
As badly as many of England's batsmen performed, Trott showed what can be achieved with real application, resolve and a solid technique as he racked up 50 singles in reaching his century, manoeuvring the ball around the outfield with precision.
When Trott reached 75 he reached his highest Test score since his 203 against Sri Lanka at Cardiff in May 2011 - fully 14 innings ago. England will need the other batsmen to regain their form to a similar extent.
Andrew Strauss's struggles are well documented and the captain's extended slump in form was discussed after day three, but he is far from being the only under-performer in a batting line up which has lacked any confidence or conviction this winter.
Make no mistake about it, Sri Lanka are a side England were expected to beat; indeed, this was their first home Test win since the retirement of Muttiah Muralitharan in July 2010 and Andy Flower's side ended the summer in fine form.
England were skittled out for under 200 four times in the UAE and added one to that tally for the winter as they capitulated in a dismal showing in the first innings.
Supporters have heard all the platitudes before about lessons having been learned, improvements being made and challenges confronted, but quotes can only thinly veil the performances out on the field.
Samit Patel was selected in preference of Ravi Bopara and duly contributed 11 runs in two innings, while Trott was the only England batsman to come out of the game with any real credit or pride, Bell's 52 in the first innings aside.
The England bowlers continue to perform admirably and remain relatively exempt from blame, even in a losing cause: the batsmen simply did not deliver or perform.
The onus is now on Flower and Strauss to reconsider the balance and make-up of the side, while the only ones who can really turn things around are the batsmen, who could do worse than learning from Trott's example.
STAT OF THE DAY: Sri Lanka's victory was only the 12th time a side has won after having lost their first three wickets for 15 runs or less in the first innings of a Test match.
TWEET OF THE DAY: Swanny last night on dealing with the conditions, "We're a team who were brought up in a temperate climate ... well, half of us were." (@Spincricket)
USER COMMENT OF THE DAY: I'm convinced that England's batting issues are largely mental/psychological, rather than technical. The Sri Lanka spinners are decent, but not in the same league as Ajmal, Murali or Warne. England have faced Herath in England without undue problems, but once confidence goes and doubts creep into one's head it becomes progressively harder to get out of a negative, defeatist mindset. (John L)
ABSURDITY OF THE DAY: England fans reported that the local authorities suddenly enforced a 1000 LKR charge for any tourist sitting 'to the right of the Fort clock tower' because the local president had "hired" it for a private party - it was free for locals. The two-tier surcharges for England fans continues to infuriate the tourists.
SHOTS OF THE DAY: If there's one thing Randiv can do better than most bowlers it is celebrate. Here he pulls out the Angel of the North (of Sri Lanka)...