The former England cricketer Chris Lewis was sentenced to 13 years in prison yesterday for smuggling £140,000 of cocaine into Britain in his cricket bag.
The mercurial 41-year-old had pleaded not guilty, claiming a friend had tricked him into bringing the drugs into the country – he thought they were simply tins of fruit juice, he told the court. His accomplice, the former basketball player Chad Kirnon, 27, was given the same sentence.
Lewis, a Guyana-born all-rounder considered one of the most talented English players of his generation, was stopped by customs officers at Gatwick airport at 5am on 8 December when returning from a trip to the Caribbean island of St Lucia. He was carrying a Prada men's handbag and a Puma cricket bag, the latter containing five tins with a brown liquid which smelt of chemicals. It later transpired that evaporating the liquid off would yield 3.75kg of pure cocaine.
Lewis told the jury at Croydon Crown Court that Kirnon, of Islington, north London, had asked him to carry the tins inside his cricket bag because Kirnon's bag was overweight.
Dressed smartly in dark suits, the two defendants never disputed the contents of the tins, but, as the Crown put it, "each now blames the other".
Lewis, from Brent in north London, admitted buying and smoking cannabis while in St Lucia, after being told that traces of the drug had been found on a silver grinder in his Samsonite suit carrier and cigarette papers tucked into a paperback book.
The jury took less than four hours to find Lewis guilty of conspiring to import cocaine. Their verdict ignominiously opens the latest chapter in the remarkable life of a complex character and rare talent whose brushes with controversy have been frequent.
Born in Guyana, Lewis was the son of a preacher – his father was a Baptist teacher – and was raised by his mother and an imposing grandmother following his parents' divorce. Idolising the West Indian batting legend Sir Viv Richards, he played street cricket but couldn't bowl overarm until he was 12, two years after he had moved to England to be with his father. While still at Willesden High School he signed up to Leicestershire, aged 17. His exceptional physique – which still impressed coaches two decades later – helped him get selected for England.
But almost immediately his international reputation descended into farce. Having asked fellow fast bowler Devon Malcolm to shave his head for him at the start of a Caribbean tour, he refused to protect his scalp and promptly caught sunstroke. A headline in The Sun never left him: "The prat without a hat."
Occasional brilliance on the field was subsumed by carelessness off it. In 1996 he turned up for a Test match at the Oval 40 minutes late, blaming a flat tyre, having failed to ring team management. Three years later he alleged that England players had taken bribes, but the case came to nothing. In all, his 32 Tests between 1990 and 1996 yielded 1,105 runs and 93 wickets.
"I'm completely shocked, I need to digest this," Mr Malcolm told The Independent. He became a confidant of Lewis. "Chris could capture people's imagination like few others. He suffered under the weight of expectations. Everybody always wanted him to be something he wasn't."
His combination of ostentation with piety bemused teammates. He was photographed in a silver Mercedes and naked in women's magazines but didn't drink alcohol and read the Bible regularly. While awaiting trial at High Down prison in Surrey, he became the representative of his wing for anti-bullying and race equalities.
Lewis claimed in court that, while in High Down, Kirnon offered him £100,000 to shoulder the blame alone. He added: "I've never even tried cocaine, I've never smuggled cocaine, or any other drug." He said that his suspicions were aroused when he realised Kirnon had taken £7,000 with him to the Caribbean island.
Though it's known the pair met a few years ago, how close they were remains unclear. The court heard that the pair planned the trip to St Lucia over a spontaneous game of pool after bumping into each other in north London.
Since retiring last year, Lewis has played club cricket for Clifton CC in the Central Lancashire League, and exhibition cricket in the Caribbean. He had also carved a successful career as a coach. "It's difficult to see how he can return to that," Mr Malcolm said.
The average number of years in jail for those caught smuggling Class A drugs and pleading not guilty (based on 88 people sentenced in 2006).