The spinning duo of Jack Leach and Moeen Ali were the principal destroyers as England won with a day to spare.
It is the first time England have ever won a Test in the city of Galle and the victory ended a miserable sequence of ten defeats and three draws in their last 13 Test matches away from home.
Somerset left-armer Leach took 3-60 and Moeen finished with 4-71 – including his 150th wicket in Test cricket.
England were triumphant despite the rarity of Ben Stokes and James Anderson – probably the safest catchers in the team – both dropping easy chances.
Stokes put down Dimuth Karunaratne at slip off Moeen when the left-handed opener had scored 16. But it was not expensive – Karunaratne had added just ten more runs when Moeen pouched a sharp caught and bowled. That was No150 for Moeen.
By then, Leach had already accounted for Kaushal Silva, who missed an attempted sweep shot and was plumb lbw.
Dhananjaya de Silva was given out caught behind off Stokes but a review showed he did not touch the ball. Next delivery, however, de Silva was well caught by Joe Root low down at second slip.
Stokes bowled a hostile spell after lunch, which included liberal use of the bouncer and some verbal exchanges with Angelo Mathews.
On 18, Mathews pulled one short ball straight to Anderson at mid-wicket but somehow the veteran swing bowler contrived to put down the catch.
Kusal Mendis lofted Leach for four but then, trying to repeat the shot next ball, gave Moeen an easy catch at mid-off.
Leach conjured up a beauty to dispatch Sri Lankan captain Dinesh Chandimal and then Niroshan Dickwella was caught by Stokes at slip from the first ball after tea.
When Mathews clipped to Jos Buttler at short mid-wicket and was out for 53 – his second half-century of the match – it always looked likely that England would win inside four days.
Moeen captured his fourth wicket and eighth of the match when Akila Dananjaya edged into Stokes’ hands at slip.
Adil Rashid, who bowled poorly for most of the day, took one wicket near the end and the match finished with left-arm spinner Rangana Herath, who is retiring, being run out attempted a second.
With Jonny Bairstow likely to be fit again for the Second Test, Rashid’s place will come under pressure. Bairstow could bat at No.3 with Moeen dropping back down the order.
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