Cricket: England call for Read and Habib

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IF THE appointment of Nasser Hussain was an intrepid move by the selectors, David Graveney and co have shown an equally fearless hand in selecting the players that will play under him. With two fresh faces, Chris Read and Aftab Habib, joining the likes of Phil Tufnell, Andy Caddick and Chris Silverwood for the first Test against New Zealand, it is the new meeting the newly reprieved, with a hard core of regulars to stabilise the mix.

According to Graveney, the chairman of selectors, it all boiled down to where Alec Stewart was going to be best utilised. Once that was agreed, and England's old warhorse was back in the opening spot without the wicket- keeping gloves to fatigue and distract him, it cleared the way for the two spirited colts to fill the roles of keeper and number six. It is a two for one swap that effectively ends England's attempts at playing five bowlers, a tactic Graveney felt was a "window of opportunity that had never been taken", and one that had tended to fall "between two stalls".

Speaking about the new caps, Graveney said: "There's been a good feel about Habib in all the dressing-rooms I've visited for some time, and he comes highly rated. The same can be said of Read, who has impressed a lot of people this season. This is a good opportunity for both of them."

Read, 21 in August, has experienced a remarkable rise to the top. Like Roger Twose, who he will encounter over the coming weeks, he is Devon born. Educated at Torquay Grammar, he joined Gloucestershire in 1997 as understudy to Jack Russell. Without even a first-class game behind him, his keeping in the 2nd XI must have impressed someone in high places, because he found himself on that winter's England A team tour to Kenya and Sri Lanka. The tour gave Read a taste, albeit a modest one, for the big time.

When Russell lost his England wicket-keeping duties to Stewart and returned to his county full time, Read decided his future, particularly if it was to include Test cricket, lay elsewhere. In 1998 he moved to Nottinghamshire, the same route taken for identical reasons by Chris Broad 12 years earlier.

Unlike Broad, the selectors were already aware of him, both Graham Gooch and Mike Gatting having managed the two A tours currently on his CV.

But if they noted a tidy keeper capable of chipping in with modest runs down the order, it was Clive Rice, returning to Nottinghamshire as coach, who recognised some untapped potential with the bat.

Promoting him up the order, Rice has brought the best out of Read, who recently scored 160 against Warwickshire in difficult circumstances.

What is more, Read, apparently the strong silent type, has impressed Rice with his attitude and willingness to learn. Unless the uncompromising Rice has mellowed, it is an achievement worthy of note and, as most Notts players will tell you, one far more difficult than being selected for England.

Habib, who got the nod just ahead of his county colleagues Darren Maddy and Ben Smith, also comes garlanded with plaudits from those close to home. "He's a classy player with a lovely touch," says James Whitaker, his captain at Leicestershire and the current favourite to become the first England cricket manager. "He also has time and his shot selection is good," reckons Whitaker, who has seen his progress from day one.

Born in Reading and educated at Millfield School, Habib, now 27, had several seasons at Middlesex before moving to his current county in 1995. His rise coincided with Leicestershire's and, like many finding their feet, he undoubtedly benefited from playing in a side at the peak of its powers.

Yet if that was fortuitous timing, making his international start against New Zealand - a country where he has played in winter on numerous occasions - should also be a boon, especially batting at six. Although no pushovers, Geoff Allott and Simon Doull are not Glenn McGrath or Shoaib Akhtar.

Mind you, when he began as captain, Michael Atherton felt that England's specialist batsman, if they were to make the grade, had to bat in the top four for their county. Habib, who bats five or six for Leicestershire, bucks that trend. And yet he should not feel too insecure because Hussain did exactly the same for Essex, though in time he did vacate the comfort zone for something more testing up the order.

The return of Chris Silverwood, now bowling faster than ever for Yorkshire, is another sign that progress has been noted. As one of five specialist seamers, Silverwood is not certain to make the final XI, and both he and Alex Tudor will have to prove they have shaken off recent niggles if they are to force the captain into making a choice.

Without Darren Gough, and with Alan Mullally the only racing certainty, Hussain will probably want Dean Headley plus one other to form his three- pronged pace attack. Only if Edgbaston is grassy, hard and cracked (which it was against West Indies in 1995) will spin defer to yet more seam, in which case the return of Phil "The Cat" Tufnell may well have to be put on ice until the second Test at Lord's.

Challenges are the currency of sport and Hussain has clearly persuaded the other selectors to wipe the slate clean with regard to talented mavericks like Tufnell and Caddick. As someone with a nonconformist past himself, Hussain obviously feels he can do the fizzy lager on them and reach parts previously untapped by others.

If he can, England have it in them to become a decent side. But in a week where all manner of people have given their tuppence worth on England's latest captain, the doing has yet to be done. From this Thursday, judgement day will come every day.

Russell does the trick, page 8; Probe into Pakistan team, Foreign, page 13


First Test v New Zealand, Edgbaston, starting Thursday

Age Tests

M A Butcher (Surrey) 26 19

A J Stewart (Surrey) 36 86

N Hussain (Essex, capt) 31 39

G P Thorpe (Surrey) 29 53

M A Ramprakash (Middx) 29 34

A Habib (Leicestershire) 27 0

C M W Read (Notts, wkt) 20 0

A R Caddick (Somerset) 30 21

A D Mullally (Leicestershire) 29 13

A J Tudor (Surrey) 21 2

P C R Tufnell (Middlesex) 33 34

C E W Silverwood (Yorks) 24 1

D W Headley (Kent) 29 13