Cricket: Last chance for an enigma: Derek Pringle tries to unravel the puzzle of an unfulfilled talent

CHRIS LEWIS is a puzzle. For starters he thinks nothing of spending a fortune on designer clothes (Jean-Paul Gaultier at present) yet he reckons the room service surcharge in Guyana is a rip-off. He reads the Bible in public but Tom Sharpe in private and is addicted to Chinese food and the telephone. He might bowl swing or pace - brilliantly or indifferently - and alternates between batting like a beginner and batting like a genius.

Ray Illingworth, the newly appointed chairman of selectors, has vowed to resurrect the role of the all-rounder; this should have been good news for Lewis, but instead it was Graeme Hick who was mentioned by Illingworth.

Like it or not, Lewis does catch the eye. Whether crossing himself in the name of the Lord before he bowls, or crossing his legs when posing nude for a glossy magazine, he cannot help attracting attention. Perhaps that is the problem: we notice him too often, focus too closely. His eye-catching extremes discourage balanced judgement of his abilities.

In his brief career, Lewis, who is just 26, has attracted applause and exasperation in equal doses - all but his biggest fans have lost patience with him. Each time he looks to have smoothed the way to a glittering Test career, the gold has turned back into lead. He made his Test debut against New Zealand at Edgbaston in 1990 and in 21 Tests he has averaged exactly 25 with the bat, while his 54 wickets weigh in at a fairly hefty 39.92 apiece. As Geoff Boycott once said after a moment of brilliance in the field: 'He's a super fielder is that Chris Lewis. But if he were a proper all-rounder, he would be doing something about those averages. They're back to bloody front.'

On last winter's tour to India and Sri Lanka, only he and Hick returned with enhanced reputations. Then both found themselves dropped from the Ashes series after the second Test at Lord's. Whereas Hick's failing was a technical weakness - to the short ball, as ruthlessly exposed by Merv Hughes - Lewis's was more complex, and his commitment has been questioned.

When Lewis has played well he has been sublime. But, like spotting a leopard in a tree, these unforgettable moments have been rarely glimpsed. When they do happen - the quick-fire dismissals of three of Pakistan's top order for ducks at Lord's in 1992, and his brilliant century against India in Madras last year are examples - the odds tend to be heavily stacked against England during the second innings of a match. Because the game looks lost and the pressure is firmly off, Lewis has nothing to lose, which is the get-out clause his critics reckon he needs in order to deliver. But winning positions have their foundations earlier in the game, a point at which Lewis never seems able to deliver.

The theory was certainly borne out early in his Test career when he let the pressure get to him long before the opposing batsmen could, withdrawing more than once at the 11th hour, the victim of mysterious migraines. He has a history of ailments, but as his tangible afflictions have receded - perhaps because their use as an excuse would eventually preclude him from selection altogether - speculation as to his variability has centred squarely on his character.

Frustration at Lewis is not just limited to the press and the public; privately, many of the players are also upset at his lack of consistency. On tour he is very much his own man. Where the rest of the players form little cliques, needing the familiar reference points to cope with being away, Lewis prefers his own company. He spends most of his spare time listening to music and sleeping in his room, which, because he nearly always eats in - ordering plenty of dishes but finishing few - ends up looking and smelling like a galley kitchen.

His bowling is the cause of most bafflement, and many players reckon he delivered the ball quicker and with more conviction when he represented England Under-19s than he has on this tour.

Cynics believe he craves the limelight of Test cricket, and that publicity stunts such as shaving his head and removing his clothes simply keep him basking in its well-remunerated glow.

Lewis disagrees: 'Posing nude or shaving my head has had no effect on my cricket and were the situation to come round again, there is nothing I would do any differently.'

He does, however, agree that things could perhaps be better. 'I'm a little disappointed in my performance thus far in international cricket, but I wouldn't say I have failed to deliver. People have a right to expect something, but just because you don't live up to their expectations it doesn't necessarily mean you've failed in any way. And I've become a better cricketer over the past year or so.'

With England's prime strike bowler absent for the second Test, Lewis now faces his greatest challenge, and his captain has been unequivocal in setting it. 'It is up to him to fill the hole left by Devon (Malcolm),' Mike Atherton said. 'He has the ability, but it is also up to us to try to get him to do that. You can talk until you are blue in the face, but at the end of the day it's results and performances from the bloke himself that count.'

Lewis was born in Georgetown; as far as England are concerned it may also be the site of his last chance.

(Photograph omitted)

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