England were left clinging to their Ashes dreams last night by the strength of Ricky Ponting's little finger. It was difficult to tell who was hanging on more desperately.
In a dramatic finish to the third day of the Third Test, the captain of Australia was dispatched to hospital for an examination on the digit of his left hand. If it was typical of the afflictions pervading Ponting's individual series, it also offered the tourists a modicum of hope that fortune has not suddenly deserted them. Ponting, it was being said, might be out of the series but then again he might just be out for tea. By the end of a day which had belonged utterly to Australia, who were pursuing their opponents with a vigour rarely seen outside dog-fighting rings, England were 81 for 5 in their pursuit of 391 to win the match and the Ashes.
Ponting appeared to damage a finger in attempting to take a catch off the edge of Jonathan Trott's bat in the penultimate over. It was a fast ball from Mitchell Johnson and the resultant edge from a man astonished by the pace flew to second slip. There, Ponting, also surprised, failed to hold the ball and knocked it up to his left where the wicketkeeper Brad Haddin swallowed it.
Ponting was in trouble and while there were many fans around of Aussie Rules (which demands physical courage bordering on masochism) who said Ponting should bite off his finger and continue, he duly walked from the field after studious attempts to bend the finger seemed to suggest possible breakage. Off he went to hospital with nobody knowing what was going on, except it looked serious.
The final English wicket to fall was a bizarre misuse of the unofficial regulations governing nightwatchmen, the tailender Jimmy Anderson, who had replaced Trott, refusing a single off the penultimate ball of the day after Paul Collingwood nudged a ball to square leg. Collingwood, with inevitable alacrity, speared the last ball of the day to third slip and England's troubles deepened.