Cricket: Wells' hopes spring eternal for challenge: Sussex's talented captain may have been overlooked in the Test arena but he is still looking on the bright side. Rob Steen reports

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ALAN WELLS will tell you he is in his prime. True, he might as well be in his dotage for all the difference it will make to Scotland's chances in today's Benson and Hedges Cup tie at Hove, but at some stage this summer he should discover whether he has peaked too late.

At least one batting berth is expected to be up for grabs when Ray Illingworth presides over his first England selection meeting next month. Of the three main contenders, Mike Gatting occupies one end of the time tunnel, John Crawley the other. At 32, Wells, the seaworthy Sussex captain, is perched precariously between the two.

The last batsman of comparable vintage to make his debut for England was David Steele, the grey fox from Northamptonshire who, knocking on 34, marched in to defy Lillee and Thomson, scored 365 runs in the home series with Australia, and won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award for 1975.

In terms of numbers crunched, Wells's credentials are far more persuasive than those of Steele, whose career average barely exceeded 30. Over the past five county seasons, Wells has amassed 7,921 first-class runs at an average of 51.77.

Beyond the figures lies the sweetest on-drive and a cool temperament characterised by the masterly unbeaten 106 that won Sussex last season's NatWest semi-final against Glamorgan. Gatting and Gooch apart, no Englishman has been as consistent in the 1990s.

Wells was especially unlucky to loose out to the more mercurial Matthew Maynard in selection for the Caribbean. While Maynard

ultimately floundered in Jamaica, Wells was fobbed off with the vice- captaincy of England A. Cue a

return to South Africa, scene of the 'rebel' trek of 1989-90 that once seemed destined to cost him any chance of progressing further than his elder brother, Colin, who played in two one-day internationals in Sharjah 10 winters ago.

Of all the batsmen who set sail

under Gatting, Maynard and Wells junior had the most to lose. Wells insists, however, that he did not consider himself Test material at the time. 'I've never had any regrets

because I still had some nuts and bolts to sort out before I could be a complete batsman. I wouldn't have done myself justice. David Smith helped me play a lot straighter and Norman Gifford helped me put my weight into the ball. Now I feel I would do myself justice.'

Despite scoring 175 for once out in the only A Test, Wells feels he failed in this respect on his second visit to the Republic. 'I set my stall out to be the leading batsman, but John Crawley achieved that so I was disappointed. On the other hand, I did make 600 runs so I kept my name in the frame. As a 32-year-old, if I'd failed that would have been it. Anyway, I'm a younger 32 than

David Steele was.'

For all that, Wells is adamant that personal recognition runs second to securing an even more elusive catch, namely leading Sussex to their first Championship pennant. 'Definitely. That's my job and of course becoming the first Sussex captain to hold that trophy aloft would be tremendous.'

The omens are even more encouraging than at the outset of Wells's maiden season at Hove in 1981, the year Garth le Roux and Imran Khan drove Sussex to their seventh and most recent runners-up slot.

As evidence that now, more than ever, all the boxes seem ticked, Wells cites not only the arrival of Paul Jarvis but also the spirit

displayed after last term's numbing NatWest final loss to Warwickshire. 'Of course it hurt, but the heads didn't stay down. In our last two games, it took rain to deny us at Yorkshire and we beat Gloucestershire by 10 wickets. That must say something.'

Rather than hovering between two stools, Wells prefers to picture himself on the brink of a double breakthrough.