Cricket: Host of hopefuls will keep Hussain busy

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SENSIBLY KEEPING all options open, Nasser Hussain has made it clear that, much as he recognises the appetite for change growing within England's frustrated cricketing public, the "blank sheet of paper" upon which he, David Graveney and Duncan Fletcher will compose the squad for next week's decisive fourth Test match may yet bear many familiar names.

The England captain is being enthusiastically portrayed as a reformer prepared to make tough and ruthless choices. But this does not necessarily mean wholesale change. The desire to win at The Oval and therefore avoid the ignominy of holding cricket's unofficial wooden spoon - as determined by the Wisden rankings - will not be put to one side, nor should it.

Sooner or later, however, Hussain and his fellow selectors will follow their instinct to "look towards the future" and introduce new blood, those players put forward by Jack Birkenshaw and Ian Botham, as advisors to the selection panel, as well as other respected judges.

There is no shortage of contenders. The average county coach could probably reel off a dozen names and not all would come up with the same suggestions. There are a number, however, who gain favour with most observers.

If there is to be a new opener, Leicestershire's Darren Maddy and Yorkshire's Michael Vaughan must be near the top of the list, followed perhaps by Vikram Solanki of Worcestershire, with the Kent pair Ed Smith and Robert Key and Lancashire's Mark Chilton also worthy of discussion. Maddy, 25, who played in two one-day matches last summer, might have been elevated to the Test side already had he not been slow to find his form this summer, but he now has two first-class centuries and an average of 48.76 that places him high among the contenders.

Vaughan's form has been patchy but he has the experience of three A tours, the last of them as captain, and at 24 is reaching the point, like Maddy, at which he needs to be tested at senior level. He can contribute also by bowling off-breaks, as can the 23-year-old Solanki, a stylish and exciting batsman, wristy in the Asian tradition, whose 900-plus first-class runs this season include two centuries.

In the middle order, Northampton's David Sales, Ben Smith of Leicestershire, Gloucestershire's Matt Windows and, as an outsider, Derbyshire's Robin Weston will merit consideration. At 27, Smith no longer qualifies as a youngster but has a talent bolstered by maturity, but the most compelling candidate is Sales.

The 21-year-old Surrey-born batsman already has three records to his name, having been the youngest player to record a Sunday League half-century in 1994 (aged 16 years, 289 days), the youngest to make a Championship double hundred (18 years, 237 days) - on his debut, to boot - and this season the youngest English player to score a triple century, having made 303 not out against Essex, passing 1,000 runs for the season in so doing.

Graeme Swann, Sales's Northamptonshire team-mate, at 20 is already an effective off-spinner who also bats proficiently, while Yorkshire's 24- year-old Gavin Hamilton is another possible in the all-rounder category.

Among those pressing for inclusion among the quick bowlers, Warwickshire's Ed Giddins (28) and Jason Lewry (28), of Sussex, represent the more experienced contenders. Alamgir Sheriyar of Worcestershire, the leading domestic wicket- taker, must merit a mention, while Paul Franks (Nottinghamshire), Matthew Hoggard (Yorkshire) and Steve Harmison (Durham) have influential supporters as the names for the future of which Hussain speaks.