Cricket: The weight of great expectation

Chris Lewis returns to the England side after injury for the second Test at Headingley tomorrow. Adam Szreter spoke to him
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The Independent Online
Nowadays when you meet Chris Lewis, there is a dread word to be avoided at all cost. "I'm tired of reading about Chris Lewis the 'enigma'," his agent said. "I'd like you to get to know him a bit better than that." He suggested breakfast at Harrods was the time and place to get to know the 28-year-old England all-rounder. I had my doubts.

For someone who has persistently under-achieved at Test level, there is a little too much showbiz about Lewis for many people's liking. His semi-nude modelling assignment last year was never likely to win him new friends within the game and breakfast at Harrods or dinner at a posh Chinese restaurant in Earl's Court -the other alternative - did not seem the most appropriate setting for someone desperate to prove he is much more than a flash young man with abundant talent.

Given the treatment Lewis has been subjected to by the media during the six years since making his England debut, it is to his credit that he is still happy to give up his time to the press. Not that he has forgotten the more hurtful attacks.

"There were many times when I just thought, there must be someone in an office somewhere with a typewriter who just thinks, 'Well, this is what I'm going to write today, never mind what's going on in the real world, this makes a good story. Chris Lewis is no one in particular, there isn't a great deal he can actually do about it, so let's get on and write it'.

"If you're suggesting that somebody would go on to the field and play for their country without being up for the battle, I think that's a very personal attack. Since coming back into the England side this year I've certainly found it easier. There have been less times when I opened the paper and thought, 'Oh God, where did they get that from?' or 'How did they come to that conclusion?'

"After a while, you accept that a lot of things aren't necessarily going to change just because you're unhappy. Now it tends not to bother me as much because it's something you have very little control over so you just get on with it."

Owing to a combination of illness, injury and inconsistency, after 30 Test matches Lewis has still to establish himself as a reliable performer for England, let alone the star player that his ability merits. Now, while the public still yearns for him to take five wickets and make a century every time he plays, he has reached the age where opportunities to fulfil himself are growing scarce.

"I've never tried to live up to anyone else's expectations," he said. "My expectations of myself are very high. But, at the same time, people develop and mature, and I guess if I was to take on most people's perspective of Chris Lewis I think I probably would have shot myself by now, to be perfectly honest.

"There's been so many things written about Chris Lewis the enigma, why isn't he doing this, he has all this talent but he's wasting it, blah blah blah. But I've always tried to look at things from my point of view. I believe I've got a lot of ability. I believe I haven't done myself justice but I feel I am going to do that. I'm going to get the runs and wickets that I should, and I am eventually going to do myself justice. I can appreciate that other people get frustrated at that, but I think that a lot of those people should appreciate that the person who is most frustrated might be me."

Frustration for Lewis recently came in the form of a hip injury that kept him out for the whole of last season and ended an unhappy four- year stint at Nottinghamshire after leaving Leicestershire.

"Apart from the fact that I like living in the Midlands, two of the main reasons I went there were: one, John Birch, who was the coach - he seemed to get an awful lot out of his players; and the thought of bowling with Franklyn Stephenson, who'd been a terrific pro for Nottingham. But when I joined, Franklyn Stephenson wasn't retained and within a month of the season starting John Birch had left. So two of the main reasons for joining Nottingham had vanished within a couple of months of a six-year contract.

"From there on it really went downhill. I had a manager who called me into his office for a big meeting, and when I asked him what the problem was, the problem was that I was stretching my neck when the rest of the guys were stretching their hamstrings, and this was a catastrophe. It was proof that I was trying to be different again. I suggested it was proof that I had a stiff neck, and it just went downhill from there - like being told to tone down my suits and things when I suggested that perhaps the focus of the team should be on cricket. If someone cared to let me get on with it I could actually play quite decent cricket. But it always seemed to be something else."

The last straw for Lewis was a fire at his mother's home in London during the winter, which he believed was not necessarily an accident. "It was just fortunate that my mum and young brothers were away at the time. The club said I could have a couple of days off to go to London and sort it out, but when I got back the buzz around the club was that it actually never happened. I'd made it up for whatever reason. It was pointless to be in a team who actually think not only that you would lie to get time off, but you would lie about something like that."

Lewis has found more peace of mind since joining a successful Surrey side and returning to London, where he grew up from the age of 10 after his father, a Baptist preacher, had moved the family from Guyana. Lewis goes back regularly to the Caribbean, but is convinced that, for him at least, his father made the right decision. "If I hadn't moved from the West Indies to England I wouldn't be playing cricket.

"I remember growing up in Guyana and there was always a game of cricket on. To be honest, there were a lot of kids of my age who were better, I was just one of many in the pack. The difference for me came when I moved to England.

"Life in Guyana wasn't necessarily easy, and even young kids were working at times to help support families. Coming to England there just wasn't the need. At 10 and 11 I could actually just be a child. I could just go and play cricket and do whatever I wanted to do, whereas in the West Indies people started to play cricket less and less and do other things, not necessarily because they wanted to but because they just had to be done."

Since his latest recall to the England cause, Lewis has suddenly found himself to be one of the more senior players in the side. "It struck me at Edgbaston when I was asked to sit in the front row for the team photograph." So far he has responded well, without taking a game by the scruff of the neck. Against Pakistan, he knows he needs to be at his best. Fit again after missing the first Test with a thigh strain, he warmed up by captaining Surrey in their recent match against South Africa A.

"I struck the ball better than I have all year," he said. "I'm going up to Headingley confident with bat and ball. I may not take five wickets and score a hundred, but if I get my game in order I'm more than capable of doing it. That's a nice thought to take with me."