He listens to soul and reggae before Test matches and got his kit off for a women's mag. Howzat? Pretty enigmatic, since you ask

the interview: CHRIS LEWIS TALKS TO BEN THOMPSON photograph by david sandison
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The Oval cricket ground is a walled castle of tranquillity in the middle of South London's urban sprawl. Pulling cheekily into the official Surrey CCC car park, you half expect to be summarily expelled by an ex- colonel with a blunderbuss, but instead a kind man in a suit points out a vacant space. At reception, a phone call to the dressing room to establish the whereabouts of the England star Chris Lewis elicits the genially imperious response: "This is he."

One of the country's most exciting cricketers, Lewis is now happily re- established in the national team after a year out of the game with a hip injury, and is finally threatening to lose the "enigma" tag that has dogged him throughout his career. Very tall and extremely well-dressed - his shaved head topped by an Armani skull-cap - Lewis explains why everyone's so friendly: "It's not like Lords, they let anyone in here," he smiles, "they let me in".

Through the window a Second XI game steadily unfolds to a crowd comprising three men, one woman, and a dog. It's a far cry from the extravagant spectacles of Olympiads and Euro 96, and this is exactly what a lot of people like about it. It comes as no surprise to discover that the dynamic Lewis is not a part of cricket's militant backwater tendency. "It's all right saying that we should keep tradition," he insists. "Yes we should, but do we keep it to such a large extent that the game itself actually dies? The problem is that cricket is in a dogfight with a lot of other sports. When I go back to the West Indies now, I meet kids who have never played cricket because they're too busy playing basketball or baseball, which would have been unheard of just a few years ago."

It's certainly a far cry from the cricket-saturated environment in which Lewis, now 28, grew up in Guyana in the Seventies. But when he left the care of his grandmother ("I think grans are brilliant - they basically let you do what you want") to join his father and mother in north west London at the age of 10, he was in for a bit of a shock. "I got here in February, and the first thing I realised was that cricket wasn't the centre of the world. 'Here I am, I know the best game in the world, and nobody is playing it.' I thought everyone was crazy." Fortunately a sporty secondary school - Willesden High, also home to fellow England veteran Phil Defreitas - put him back on track.

Lewis is worried that such places don't exist any more. "I've got an eight-year-old brother who loves cricket. I asked him why he didn't take his bat into school to practise in his lunch hour and he said he's not allowed - they're not allowed to take a football in either. I used to play every day, and if I hadn't done that I wouldn't be a cricketer today. I'm sure that's true of most of the current England team - and of the footballers too, for that matter - if we aren't allowing kids to develop their talents we're going to suffer as a nation. I think people have a tendency to take sport very lightly in this country with regard to its social importance - it's almost like a second thought, something you do for a laugh."

As affable as he is in person, Lewis looks very serious on the pitch. Does he enjoy the game's more confrontational aspects? "Sometimes, yes. Cricket is about so many things - not just ability, but your mental state and how you portray yourself - and when you're bowling at someone, making it a very personal thing can actually help you, because some people don't like those sorts of confrontations. To be honest I think I am a reasonable size, and if someone wants to challenge you, the alternatives are either to accept it or to back down, and I don't think my ego would allow me to back down."

Would he say he has quite a well-developed ego? "I would suggest that most sports people have, it's just that some are better at hiding it than others." Is he good at hiding his? "Generally yes, but I have moments when my friends would have to touch me and tell me to relax."

Does he recognise the leisured, gentlemanly pursuit constantly harked back to in radio commentary boxes? "It may have been like that once, but cricket as it is played in the modern day is an intimidating game. When people are playing to pay their mortgages and take care of their families, there is almost no space for niceties. You can't afford to be too nice: if you don't perform you could be sacked." It sounds very pressured. "I think life as a whole is filled with pressures. Maybe as a sportsman you have to deal with a few more, but I think if you're positive about that, you can make it part of the excitement. To be perfectly honest, I don't think you'd get the same intensity, or the same amount of passion, if it was just a game."

A few years back, Lewis got an enormous amount of flak for posing in various stages of undress for the beefcake bible For Women (footballers get stick now if they don't do that sort of thing but cricket still has a bit of catching up to do). Has he regretted baring his (almost) all at any point? "Not a bit. I thought it was hilarious: it was fun, it was a way of expressing myself. I sometimes get the impression that people look at cricketers and see them all as boring old farts, and this was a way of getting across to them that we are young men who do exactly the same, normal things as everybody else."

Lewis thinks that a large part of cricket's image problem stems from a managerial culture which tends to discourage individuality rather than nurturing it. Has that been his experience? "Oh gosh yes. I've had conversations with various managers - not England managers, and before I came to Surrey - where they've knocked on my door and asked me if I could tone my suits down." What type of suits were these? "It was just an ordinary grey suit" - Lewis's indignation is not hard to comprehend - "I thought it was quite bland actually. I'd picked it out specially to wear to the ground so I could fit in!"

Fitting in is a complex business. When Lewis's picture appeared in For Women, it received an unsavoury consignment of racist hate mail. Did that surprise him? "It didn't really, because there have been times on various grounds when I have been racially abused." You don't hear much about that happening - cricket is meant to be such a polite business. "My opinion about it is that sometimes - not always - it's better to ignore certain groups of people. Don't get me wrong, it's not something that you encounter on a daily basis, but it's something that is definitely there. A lot of the time I read the letters and think 'That's sad, that's very sad'. I only wish they would put a return address."

Does he think that there has been a racial subtext to the vehemence of some of the criticism to which his performances for - and occasional withdrawals through injury from - the national team have been subjected? "I would say that in my England career so far I haven't been as consistent as I would like." But at times it's hard not to get the impression that some people, within the game as well as outside, would prefer the England cricket team to be as white as their kit.

"If that is the case, it would be really disappointing, because we live in a very cosmopolitan society and to me there's nothing better than going out into the field, the Edgbaston Test against India was a good example. There was myself and Nasser Hussein and Min Patel, and when I see that team sheet I look at it in a very positive light - not just from a cricketing point of view but from a general English point of view - because it reflects the society that we actually live in and it makes me feel very proud."

With the recent arrival of new coach and committed non-curmudgeon David Lloyd, things seem to have taken a definite turn for the better in the England camp. "We're encouraged to express ourselves much more now," Lewis observes contentedly, "not just in terms of how we play, but in our dress and even our music. Everyone plays a bit of music in the dressing room before the game, and even while we're playing - there are a few Oasis fans among the Lancashire boys, then there are those like me who are more into soul and reggae, but it all blends in quite nicely. You can see people's tastes and personalities coming through and it's good for the team: if you treat adults like kids, they get upset."

Dinner plates and cutlery are being laid out at a long table. How is the cricketer's lunch these days? "It used to be great, just like school dinners: all fish and chips and jam roly-poly. That was one tradition they should have kept." Lewis gets up to go with a wry smile. "Now that we're 'professional sportsmen', there's a great deal of pasta."

8 The Third, and final, Test match against India continues at Trent Bridge, Nottingham, today.

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