Outsider who never made most of his day in the sun
Chris Lewis's talent was undoubted but controversy was never far away from the former Test player charged yesterday with smuggling cocaine
Wednesday 10 December 2008
On a warm July evening with what passed for a crowd drifting homeward Chris Lewis demonstrated what talent was all about. The match was one of that multitude in the County Championship which meander blamelessly to a draw.
Northamptonshire had batted obdurately beyond tea on the final day and there were 20 overs left, not all of them, thankfully, compulsory. Leicestershire needed 204 to win. It was academic.
But Leicestershire were well placed to win the title in that season 10 years ago. So they decided to have a bash at this improbable target. They got there with five balls to spare. Lewis, their acting captain, made 71 unbeaten runs from 33 balls: four sixes, five fours and all executed with a flourish of inevitability. It was academic all right.
To put the pursuit into context, it was the fastest with a target above 200 in first-class history, 1.77 runs a ball. There were no fielding restrictions, none of the regulation rushing of the modern short form. This was 20-over cricket before it had been born. Leicestershire went on to win their prize but it was somehow typical that Lewis would never captain them again.
That was one Christopher Clairmonte Lewis, the cricketer with all the natural flair and athletic ability which the playing of sport could want.
Then there was the other Lewis. He was the one who shaved his head upon arrival on a tour of the West Indies and promptly went down with sunstroke. From that moment on he could never quite live down the headline which followed. He would always be the prat without a hat.
Nobody, however, could have predicted what happened yesterday when Lewis was remanded in custody on a charge of smuggling 9lb of cocaine into Britain from St Lucia in the West Indies.
If it can be said of a man who played 85 times for England in all, including 32 Test matches, he remained an unfulfilled cricketer. That calamitous literal moment in Antigua apart, there were too few moments in sun.
He was one of many cricketers in the decade following Ian Botham's decline who was dubbed the new Botham. Lewis was one of the few who had the all-round gifts to succeed. He could bowl fast and with swing, his batting was swashbuckling, his fielding both in the deep and at gully was almost ahead of its time. But he never came close. Nobody seemed truly to know him in the dressing room. He was hardly aloof but he did not give much of himself; he was not unfriendly but he did not show much inclination to make friends.
"Not a lot of people got to know Chris," said Devon Malcolm, one of the few people in the England team who did. "I'll tell you what kind of person he is, he'd have a drink with you if he was thirsty. But he wouldn't otherwise, he couldn't see the logic of sitting down and having a drink or a chat.
"You might ask him for a drink and he'd come for one, say, 'Right that's that, what should we do now?'"
Lewis was the archetypal enigma. Coaches did not quite know how to treat him; team-mates were mildly confused about how to include him; spectators were unsure of how to react. He provoked neither warmth nor loathing, yet he was far from bland.
He always looked sharp and he liked the trappings of success, as embodied by the Mercedes convertible he acquired in the mid-Nineties. It was a puncture to a tyre on that car which made him late at The Oval on the morning of a Test match. He had failed to ring to tell them. Nobody was surprised.
For years, there were barely suppressed mutterings about his private life, girls on arms occasionally or not. It stayed private. Of course, he should have scored more than 1,105 Test runs at 23.02 and taken more than 93 wickets at 37.53. Those averages might have been the other way round. Instead, there were mere flashes. Such as at Edgbaston in 1991 when, given the new ball, he exploited the conditions to take 6 for 111. Two years later in Chennai, scene of England's match this week, when he blasted his way excitingly to 117. They were both in losing causes.
That Chennai innings was probably as near as he ever got to combining the talent and the flair. The trouble was the match was already doomed. Lewis was proving nothing, So it went on. The selectors never quite lost faith in him but he never quite rewarded it.
Towards the end of his career he alleged that three England players had taken bribes to affect the outcome of matches. He had his day in a tribunal but it came to nothing. This further alienated him from his peers and he retired at 32.
"He is a fantastic bloke," said Malcolm. "If you were willing to have the patience to get to know him he would have the patience with you. But not many did and I guess that's why not many cricketers got to know him. If you didn't have time to coax him out of himself he was wary. But I can tell you he was a caring person. He was a deep bloke."
Like the rest of the cricket world, Malcolm was stunned by the events of yesterday. This is a man who barely drinks. He has stayed superbly fit, which allowed him to make a bizarre comeback last summer, having spent some seasons plying his trade in the Central Lancashire League.
At the age of 40, he was signed by Surrey specifically to play in the domestic Twenty20 competition. It was either brave or foolish. He played one match, scoring two runs and bowling as many overs.
A few weeks ago he went to Grenada to play some exhibition cricket. Malcolm went too. "I told him I'd see him before Christmas if I was passing through London. I was the one who cut his hair all those years ago, but I told him to be careful and to wear a hat." That the warning might have had metaphorical connotations seemed relevant yesterday.
Lewis in numbers
1 The number of centuries Lewis scored for England – a 117 against India in Chennai in 1993.
93 Test wickets, his best figgures being 6-111 against West Indies in 1991.
16,225 Total number of first-class runs scored in his county career.
53 Number of one-day internationals for England.
32 Number of Test appearances Lewis made for England between 1990 and 1996.
3 Number of five-wicket hauls by Lewis in his Test career.
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