Cricket: Wells nudges to front of queue

Leicestershire's opening batsman is used to being a latecomer and at 33 he is making a good case for inclusion in England's World Cup squad.
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IT MIGHT have become a hoary staple of sporting quizzes. Question: Can you name three English cricketing Wells to have only four one-day internationals between them? Answer: Colin (two matches in 1985, highest score 17), Alan (one match in 1995, scoring of 15) and the debutant, Tunbridge (the Nevill Ground of that ilk, one match in the 1983 World Cup, between India and Zimbabwe, highest score Kapil Dev, 175 not out after India were 18 for 5).

This jolly little wheeze has been rather spoiled by the recent advent of Vince (six matches up to the first final of the triangular tournament in Australia, highest score 39, best bowling 3 for 30 and still going strong). In a side that has been losing their way and their games he has been admirably imperturbable. Until two months ago the odds on Vince Wells playing for England were probably slightly longer than the routes taken by that other Wells - Fargo.

There was nothing wrong with his form. Wells is a key player in the Leicestershire team, which has secured two County Championship titles in three years, as opening batsman and medium-pace seam bowler. He is as effective as anybody of his type, much superior to most. But last August he was 33. It is usually an age which captures the attention only of those selectors doing some initial scouting for over-35 sides.

The England panel, however, was bent on a deliberate policy which might have seemed to be aimed at making every cricketer in England a one-day international but was actually designed to give a chance to many so that the correct few could eventually be chosen for the World Cup. On this basis Wells might have been nearer the front of the queue.

"I think as long as you're playing you never give up hope of being in the England team," he said. "You might be 35 and the chance will come along." Perhaps only in England but Wells (and to a slightly lesser extent the other uncapped veteran, Mark Alleyne, who sadly had to leave the tour of Australia this week when his father died) has rewarded the faith in the virtues of maturity and experience.

He has not taken the Carlton & United Series by storm but with every match he has looked more established. The progress has been discernible both in his returns and his demeanour. In the opening match against Australia at Brisbane there was the suspicion that he might be overawed. There were 18,000 people packed into a searingly hot Gabba and neither the crowd nor the climate are familiar by their presence at Grace Road.

In his second match there were 80,000 at Melbourne and he went for 20 in his first three overs of international cricket. In his third at Adelaide, Muttiah Muralitharan was called for throwing, Sri Lanka made a wonderful fist of chasing 303 to win and Wells had to bowl the last over when they succeeded. It had never been like this before.

"I try to remain the same whether I've done badly or well," he said of the twin impostors. "I try not to get involved in the ups and downs of a cricketer's life."

It was the equable temperament that began to serve him so well in this tournament. England have played less well as the series has progressed and on Wednesday they reached their nadir when, with the match well in hand, they lost five wickets for six runs. As their manager, David Graveney, put it they have been losing rather than being beaten. "There is a difference," he said.

The World Cup selection picture might not be opaque yet but it is a near thing. With so many players, especially batsmen, not performing, the crystal clear view which ought to have emerged by now has not. Wells, at least and perhaps unexpectedly, is one of those now in full view.

"The things that have been most difficult to adapt to have been the difference in crowds and the atmosphere they generate," he said. "You know you're in a big match." But as for the vast gap in standards and whether he had noticed the chasm he said: "Not really. It's a jump but it's more of a jump with the other things. I think it's helped that the England management team have encouraged me to play my own game."

At Sydney the other night, Wells bowled with enormous composure. He assessed the pace of the pitch correctly, kept it mean and accounted for three of the top four. When he batted he put on 67 with Nasser Hussain. Hussain was out of sorts and when he played a maiden in the 41st over of the innings, no less, Wells responded by striking a clean six off the first ball of the next over. He was to be cleaned up in the collapse but you knew then of the virtues of experience, maturity and an equable temperament.

Wells was a late starter. Football was his preferred passion and his intended profession as a boy but when he was 16 Leyton Orient, on whose schoolboy books he had been enrolled for four years, let him go. He played some Conference football for Dartford but cricket was now to the fore.

He was at Kent until 1991 but never broke through ("One of those things, they had a team and it was difficult to get into"). In 1991 he fell for the wiles of Jack Birkenshaw at Leicestershire. It was the making of him. At the start of the 1996 season he was converted to an opener. He began to make hundreds and to go on to double hundreds.

Last season, albeit by a bit of a fluke, he topped the first-class bowling averages (climbing 118 places in taking 30 at 15) but it was evidence of his adherence to sound principles. Wells of England has never had never had a more comfortable ring about it.