A three-wicket burst from Tasmanian spinner Xavier Doherty set Hampshire's George Bailey led Australia on their way to a 32-run win over Sri Lanka in Hobart - but the hosts had to survive a late Angelo Mathews onslaught to secure the series-saving victory.

Set 248 to win the match and clinch their second series victory Down Under since 2010, Sri Lanka could not find a top-order batsman to match Australia's ex-Hampshire centurion Phil Hughes' earlier efforts and, despite a dashing knock from Mathews (67) in the middle order, were eventually bowled out for 215 with nine balls remaining.

Doherty's three scalps and a wicket in Moises Henriques' first over saw the visiting Sri Lankans lose four wickets for 20 runs in 51 balls between the 12th and 21st overs - all but forfeiting their grip on the ODI series in the process.

But Mathews and Jeevan Mendis (26) added 79 for the sixth wicket to give the tourists some chance of pulling off an unlikely victory late in the piece before Henriques (three for 32) returned to remove Mendis in the 44th over and Mitchell Johnson (two for 44) had Mathews caught at mid-wicket in the next to all but seal the deal.

Entering the match, Australia needed to win just to salvage a draw from the five-match series - an equation that was only possible due to Sunday's washout in Sydney in a match that appeared within Sri Lanka's reach before persistent rain and a sodden outfield halted play.

But, despite a bright start from Mahela Jayawardene (38) in his last match as Sri Lanka captain, the visitors struggled to recover after Doherty ran through the top order and eventually fell 33 short of the victory target.

With Michael Clarke missing the match due to an ankle injury suffered in training yesterday, Hughes anchored the batting effort from number three, notching his second hundred of the series in impressive fashion.

The 24-year-old curbed his natural enthusiasm early but blossomed late in the innings, bringing up his century in 132 deliveries and finishing unbeaten on 138 from 154 balls with 13 boundaries and one big six over mid-wicket.

Hughes and David Hussey (34) had added 98 runs for the fourth wicket to help Australia post 247 for five from their 50 overs in a batting display that was far more assured than their three previous efforts.

In a role reversal of sorts, it was Jayawardene that leapt from the blocks early in the Sri Lanka chase, hitting three boundaries from Clint McKay's third over to race beyond 30 before Tillakaratne Dilshan (19) had made it to double figures.

The captain's cameo was up in the 13th over when Doherty lured him into a false drive that was safely pouched by Mitchell Starc, running with the flight of the ball at mid-on, much to Jayawardene's dismay.

Lahiru Thirimanne (one) followed in Doherty's next over, caught in the deep by David Hussey to reduce Sri Lanka to 62 for two after 15 overs and take the gloss off what had been a promising start.

Henriques was introduced by acting skipper George Bailey to immediate effect, nipping one away from Dilshan and finding the edge en route to Matthew Wade behind the stumps to put a genuine wobble in the Sri Lanka reply.

When Dinesh Chandimal (six) was clean bowled by Doherty in the 21st over, Sri Lanka had fallen to 77 for four and all 8102 spectators in attendance at Blundstone Arena - as well as the Sri Lanka camp - could see the writing on the wall.

Mathews tried hard to form meaningful partnerships with Kushal Perera (14) and Mendis through the middle order but the breakthroughs from Henriques and Johnson put paid to any hope of a Sri Lanka comeback and settled Australian nerves.

Needing to score at nine for the final 15 overs, Sri Lanka tried to lift the tempo with a series of boundaries during their powerplay, but the task proved too great as the required run-rate continued to climb.

The lower order went down swinging and, despite a much improved performance in the one-day arena following a disappointing Test tour, the Sri Lankans will feel little consolation after letting the series win slip so early in the run chase.