Cricket: In defence of an enigma's varied talent: Too much flak? Too laid back? Tim De Lisle on the plight of Chris Lewis

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The Independent Online
IN EVERY good episode of Inspector Morse, there was a point when John Thaw became even more fed up than usual, gave his trusty sidekick a look of exasperation bordering on outright contempt, and said: 'Lew-is]'. This is the point that has now been reached on England's tour of the West Indies.

On the subject of Chris Lewis, the travelling press corps speak with one voice. They are beyond exasperation and well into contempt. Lewis stands condemned as an under-achiever, a hypochondriac, a man who lacks heart, has a low pain threshold, and fulfils his great talent only in lost causes. Several reports attribute these views to other players (off the record, of course). The whole England camp appears to be going: 'Lew-is]'. What has he done to deserve this?

Not being on the tour, I can only go by performances. But the view on Sky Sports isn't half as bleak as the view from the press box. Granted, Lewis didn't have a great first Test. Neither did Robin Smith, Matthew Maynard, Graham Thorpe, Jack Russell, Andy Caddick or Alan Igglesden. Granted, he bowled badly in a couple of the one-day internationals. So did all the other bowlers, except Angus Fraser; and Lewis, unlike the other seamers, bounced back in the final game, when he took 4 for 35, held a great catch, pulled off a sharp run-out, and saw England to victory with a cool, unbeaten 16.

Then came the match against the West Indies Board President's XI, and a new role for Lewis, standing in for Devon Malcolm as a speed merchant. Not even his massed critics were able to say he bowled badly, so they dwelt on the fact that he only managed seven overs, because of a heel injury. It emerged that he had had this for 12 to 18 months. In that time, although he had been dropped, he had not missed a Test through injury. Not bad for a man with a low pain threshold.

Much is made of Lewis's Test career record. It is not brilliant: batting 25, bowling average 39. But look at England's other all- rounders since Ian Botham. David Capel: batting average 15, bowling 50. Derek Pringle: batting 15, bowling 36. Phil DeFreitas: batting 12, bowling 33. And none of them comes near Lewis's record of a catch a match.

People are seeing what they want to see. In Jamaica last month, the bad shot Lewis played in the first innings was taken down and used in evidence against him. The bad decision he got in the second innings (after making a sober 21) was soon forgotten.

Lewis is a cricketer of great flair who doesn't yet have the confidence to be consistent in a poor team at a high level. His fielding says a lot about him: it's the one aspect of the game in which he shows reliable excellence, and the one which doesn't require any thought. He's clearly got some sort of block, some lack of self-belief. This afflicts many players early in their Test careers, notably Mike Gatting and Graeme Hick. It is not the same as lack of effort. It demands sympathy, not scorn.

Why is he being vilified? He is sensitive, gentle, religious, good- looking, and interested in fashion, and seldom heard going 'phwoarrhh]' at air hostesses. All these things mark him out from his colleagues. He's not one of the boys. His only close friend in the squad, Malcolm, is currently in Derby, convalescing.

But the problem goes deeper than that. He is a victim of the British mistrust of nonchalance, the assumption that anyone with flair must be lazy. And there's a hint of racism too. The black men whom the British sporting media take to their hearts are those who fit a stereotype: the big, cuddly ones, smiling, passive, not obviously intelligent. Dear old Devon, can't bat, can't field, but a great trier (with a Test bowling average only two lower than Lewis's). Lewis is more complicated than that.

Morse's exasperation was usually misplaced. Lewis would weather it, go off on his own, make some vital contribution to the cause, and have the last laugh, in his quiet way. So, I believe, will his namesake, if only everybody gets off his back.

(Photograph omitted)