At Lord's, May 11, 12, 13, 14, 15. Drawn. Toss: England. Test debuts: S. I. Mahmood; C. K. Kapugedera.

Patronised as mere fodder for England's seam bowlers in the damp and dewy pastures of Lord's in early May, Sri Lanka's batsmen pulled off one of the finest acts of escapology since Clint Eastwood bust out of Alcatraz. Asked to follow on, 359 behind, after lunch on the third day, they survived 199 overs and three new balls on a pitch which turned out to be completely moribund.

In truth, however, England's scissorhands fielders should have been assisting the police with their inquiries into aiding and abetting the fugitives' getaway. Nine dropped catches - six in that second innings - expedited Sri Lanka's safe passage from the tightest of corners after they had been outplayed for two and a half days.

Flintoff, still deputising as captain for the long-term injury absentee Vaughan, excused England's inexplicable bar-of-soap handiwork as an occupational hazard, yet the suspicion lingered that they had taken their eyes off the ball, in more senses than one. Flintoff 's preparations for this dispiriting anticlimax had included joining rock star Sir Elton John on stage for a duet of "Rocket Man": "I'm not the man they think I am at home... burning out his fuse up here alone." Could be. Flintoff 's personal workload included a staggering 68.3 overs with the ball, a burden which had inevitable consequences But he could not have envisaged such hard labour when England cruised to 551 for six declared in five sessions of one-way traffic. Trescothick, recovered from the "virus" which had forced him to abort his tour of India in a shroud of mystery, was charitably reprieved when most geometry gadgets suggested he was leg-before to Muralitharan twice, on 28 and 85 - but his 14th Test century was otherwise a routine one. Cook, dripping assurance and technical correctness, looked certain to decorate his home debut with a hundred until a tired waft halted him 11 short. And Pietersen batted England over the horizon with his second consecutive 158 on home soil.

This one, from 205 balls, was almost mundane compared with his white-knuckle ride against Australia at The Oval eight months earlier, but it took him past 1,000 Test runs, 295 days after his debut. He was brilliantly caught by Mubarak off a Maharoof no-ball on 52, but his stand of 173 with Collingwood, the best by any Test side for the fifth wicket against Sri Lanka, enabled Flintoff to unleash his seamers to bowl with the alacrity of dragons devouring maidens.

These were not England's first-choice dragons. Harmison was again suffering from the shin trouble that kept him out of the Mumbai Test. But now there was no Anderson either, and England included two greenhorns in Plunkett and the debutant Sajid Mahmood from Lancashire. They still had Hoggard to provide irrepressible new-ball swing, which removed both openers inside seven overs, and then Mahmood, extracting prodigious swing on his debut, ripped out Sangakkara, Samaraweera and Kapugedera (the last two for ducks) in nine deliveries as Sri Lanka slipped to 85 for six. The arrival of Sanath Jayasuriya, talked out of Test retirement by Sri Lanka's new chairman of selectors, began to look less like politics and more like sensible reinforcement.

As Flintoff said later, Sri Lanka's firstinnings collapse was not a true reflection of the benign surface. Not in their wildest nightmares, however, could England have imagined that the second-innings resistance would outlast the weekend - and had they of wear-and-tear before the series was out.

taken their chances, it would never have happened. But Jayawardene (dropped on 58) batted more than six hours for 119 to set the tone for a wonderful rearguard innings in which seven batsmen scored 50, for only the third time in Test history. After Hoggard removed Mubarak again, in the fifth over, the Sri Lankans dug in - and the harder they dug in, the sloppier England's fielding became.

Jones, Cook and Strauss flapped once in each innings, and Collingwood twice in the second. When the normally infallible Flintoff joined the butterfingers brigade on the final morning, the writing was not only on the wall but trailed in plumes of smoke across the grey skies. And still they kept dropping. When Cook missed Kulasekara on 14, at 449 for eight, Sri Lanka were only 90 ahead, in the seventh over after lunch, with plenty of time for a run-chase; by the time Kulasekara holed out, his barricade with the indefatigable Vaas had lasted 189 minutes and yielded 105 in 45 overs, a Sri Lankan ninth-wicket record. Flintoff then greeted last man Muralitharan with a short delivery which prompted the umpires to take the players off for bad light for six overs.

England's failure to grasp a yawning opportunity to draw first blood in the series put Flintoff 's captaincy under the microscope and began a nationwide debate on whether his genial nature and his workload permitted the ruthlessness required to convert superiority into Test victories. He under-bowled the accurate Panesar, whose earnest - and blameless - fielding was a popular sideshow, but Flintoff could not be blamed for all the errors.

By 5.43, when the final stoppage for bad light confirmed Sri Lanka's great escape, their second-innings diligence had stretched to 14 hours and five minutes, and they had become only the tenth side in Test history to score 500 after following on. One of them had been England in the Lord's Test with Sri Lanka four years earlier; that match had also finished in deadlock, but Flintoff 's men did not appreciate the mirror image.

Man of the Match: D. P. M. D. Jayawardene.