A fortnight ago, a charity fundraiser by the name of Lloyd Scott limped to the end of the London Marathon, a full eight days behind the rest of the competitors. Admittedly, he was dressed in a suit of armour and dragging an eight-foot dragon behind him, which hampered his progress somewhat, but at least he didn't compound his woes by adding another 12 miles to the distance he had to cover.

That was the sort of stunt that England's cricketers tried to pull off in this match. At 91 for 6 with a humungous deficit to surmount, Sri Lanka's ambitions had been reduced to two damage-limiting aims - avoiding the innings defeat, and taking the game to the fifth day. And yet, as chance after chance was shelled in the slip cordon, so their confidence swelled and along with it, their pride. The end result must be ranked as one of the most sensational escapes of all time.

Lord's is a venue that can inspire or overawe you, said Kumar Sangakkara at the midway point of this Test, and Sri Lanka have demonstrated that both can be true in the same match. Their young and unproven side was caught cold in the sunshine of the first two days, but as the chilly conditions returned so the ghosts of performances past began to surge up their spines. And England began to feel desperate.

Perhaps we should not be surprised at Sri Lanka's resilience. This was the fourth time they had made 500 runs in an innings against England - but two of those occasions came on their last two visits to London: at The Oval in 1998 and here at Lord's in 2002, a match that England themselves had to pull from the fire in the follow-on, after conceding a first-innings deficit of 280.

The end result must be ranked as one of the most sensational escapes of all time

And let's not forget their first and most fabulous appearance at Lord's - in the late summer of 1984, when a complacent England were flogged for 491 of the finest by Siddath Wettimuny and Duleep Mendis. Twenty-two years later, Mahela Jayawardene was the star as he added his name to the Lord's honours board for the second time in as many visits, but new heroes were unearthed at every turn - from the young opener Upul Tharanga, who established a platform for defiance with a classy 52, to the tailenders Farveez Maharoof and Nuwan Kulasekara, whose strokeplay sparkled as England's belief began to wilt.

No fewer than seven Sri Lankans made half-centuries in the innings - only the third time such a feat had been achieved in Test cricket, and for the first time in 80 years, every player in the team improved on their first-innings performance. But the stand-out stat was the one that made the difference. England dropped nine of the 22 chances that came their way in the match, and any of the three that went down today could have enabled a face-saving run-chase.

Alastair Cook, Andrew Strauss, Geraint Jones and Paul Collingwood all erred twice, but if any chance could be said to have made or broken the game, it was the one that fell to captain Velcro himself. When Andrew Flintoff's bucket hands reprieved Chamara Kapugedera at second slip in just the third over of the final day, the modus operandi of his captaincy was fatally undermined.

For Flintoff it has been a salutary lesson in the hardships of international leadership, and a timely one as well. His cheery grin as the Sri Lankans left the field for tea was proof that he has not yet lost his good humour, but perhaps in the circumstances it was high time that he had. One of the harsh truths about the job is being likeable isn't always an option, as his predecessors, Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan, would both be quick to testify.

Sometimes it is necessary to deliver a rocket up the backsides of your underperforming players. In Mumbai such drastic action was not needed - Flintoff was able to lead through inspiration alone, and his team rode a crest of euphoria to secure a remarkable triumph. But when the magic touch deserted him and his team-mates today, he responded in the only manner he really knew - by patching up his blisters and charging in for another spell.

So much for letting Freddie take it easy this summer. He has just become the first England seamer since Martin Bicknell and Mark Ilott at Headingley in 1993 to send down 50 overs in an innings, and only twice in his career has he bowled more than that number in an entire match. Letting him lead the side is like putting Boxer the carthorse in charge of Animal Farm. His mantra of "I must work harder" is admirable but flawed, as his under-recognition of Monty Panesar would testify.

Of course, Flintoff is no carthorse, but if his only solution in adversity is to mark out his run-up for another tilt, then that's what he risks becoming. And if that comes to pass, then England will find their attempts to win marathons - even inside the regular distance - as cumbersome as that man in his suit of armour, dragging an eight-foot dragon.