The fall of Chris Lewis

Derek Pringle charts the travels and travails of an enigma looking for a fresh start
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The Independent Online
IT WOULD not be too wide of the mark to suggest that Chris Lewis's cricket career to date would probably better be summed up within the pages of the Lancet rather than Wisden. Lewis, sidelined since the start of the season with a hip injury, had his contract with Nottinghamshire terminated last Saturday because he wants to be closer to his family - the announcement was made at Trent Bridge just as Dominic Cork was cementing his place in national affections over the Pennines at Old Trafford.

It is not the first time in his short career that the mercurial all- rounder has been unable to settle and though a move to London may not be everybody's cure for an unfulfilled talent, it will probably prove easier than resurrecting a Test career blighted almost from the beginning by inconsistency.

Lewis is all too easily referred to as a failure. But has he really failed, or merely failed to live up to our expectations? Expectations that were unrealistic to begin with. Cork is wise to play down the suggestion that he can become one of England's greatest all-rounders, but once the spotlight has been focused, escaping its glare becomes harder, not easier. Lewis found that out to his cost.

When Lewis, now 27, first announced himself at the highest level, during the Third Test against New Zealand in 1990, he had just replaced his Willesden school mate Phil DeFreitas, who had withdrawn from the match through illness. It was a poignant moment. The rival that had overshadowed Lewis all the way from school to county (both started with the Lord's groundstaff before joining Leicestershire) had suddenly made way, and Lewis enjoyed an impressive debut.

The good impression did not last long, and after some solid, if unspectacular performances against India, his tour to Australia was cut short with a stress fracture of the back. But it was when Lewis withdrew from the England side at the 11th hour at Headingley in 1991 - coincidentally the first time both he and DeFreitas were due to appear in the same Test team together - that tongues started to wag. Not everyone was convinced that this prime specimen, whose athletic fielding had astounded the public, was really tough enough in mind and body.

Despite their near identical paths - both came from the West Indies to settle with their families in London - they are totally different personalities. Whereas DeFreitas has an abundance of aggression that sometimes gets misdirected, Lewis rarely gets annoyed. Some believe this equanimity covers a low self- esteem. Jonathan Agnew, a former team-mate at Leicestershire, and now the BBC's cricket correspondent, is of a similar opinion.

"I'd have to say that Chris Lewis showed more talent when I was at Grace Road than almost any other player I've ever seen," Agnew said. "The problem is that he doesn't seem to have any self- confidence. If he had believed in himself as much as others believed in his talent, he would have been the first name on the England team sheet for the past five years."

It is an observation consistent with the findings of other perplexed Lewis-watchers, who reckon he cannot cope with pressure. The Chris Lewis who gets a wicket in his first over is, they claim, unrecognisable from the Chris Lewis who gets hit for a couple of fours in the next.

Graham Gooch, England's captain for the bulk of Lewis's Test career to date, confesses to being frustrated by the all-rounder. "We've all seen flashes of brilliance with both bat and ball, but he never produced it consistently. As a captain you like to know what you can expect from your players, but with Chris you were never sure. He either performed brilliantly or was way off track. Unfortunately, the latter outweighed the former and Test cricket demands some kind of consistency. You can tell just by looking at Cork's eyes that he wants it bad. I was never sure what Lewis wanted."

According to Gooch, he and the England coach, Mickey Stewart, tried everything from wielding the metaphorical stick to treating Lewis with kid gloves in order to get the best out of him on a more regular basis. In the end, their efforts proved futile, and Lewis's international career, after a promising start, began to ebb away.

"There is no doubt," Lewis agreed last week, "that my Test record is not as consistent as either I or the Test selectors would like. I put that down to not knowing my own game, but also to injuries and perhaps not having the strength of conviction to stick with the kind of bowling that had served me well at Leicestershire and got me selected in the first place."

Lacking the conviction to make strong personal decisions is perhaps not surprising for a young man strongly steeped in a Christian belief from an early age. At Leicestershire, too, he was able to defer decisions, being fortunate enough to have the estimable Ken Higgs as a mentor and bowling coach, a role Higgs more or less fulfills still, presumably being more clued up about cricket than the Almighty.

"Chris needs someone to be there for him," Higgs said. "He's always asking me to come and watch him bowl. He's a smashing lad and a good listener, yet I do worry about him. I still believe his best is to come. But if he's not careful he'll end up being an ordinary county player and wasting all that incredible talent."

Having coped easily with the step up to county level, his shortcomings emerged when the stakes were upped once more, this time from county to Test level, where his trusting easy-going nature was left to the mercy of men he had never worked with. Eager to please, he allowed himself, as he puts it: "To be pushed and pulled in any number of directions."

"The main problem arose," Lewis believes, "once those in charge of the England set-up saw me bowl quick. I've always known I could bowl the odd really express delivery just as a surprise. But they wanted six out of six. When I couldn't deliver, both of us got frustrated and confused. It took me a long time to come to terms with what was expected of me."

It is a scenario which the former England team manager, Keith Fletcher, confirmed. "I remember giving Lewy a fearful rocket at the end of the second day's play of the Jamaica Test 18 months ago. For most of the afternoon, he'd been bowling medium pace while Keith Arthurton had been driving his way to a hundred.

"Then, in the last over of play, he nearly took Arthurton's head off with the quickest bouncer of the match, and that was the game where everyone reckoned Courtney Walsh was frightening. That's how exasperating he could be. In hindsight, though, I think we got it wrong trying to get him to bowl quick. He just couldn't sustain it."

As Lewis bides his time, there is a part of him that acknowledges his shortcomings and a part of him that tries to defend them. He has been reading a book called Sporting Body, Sporting Mind in an effort to toughen up mentally, and he has spent a lot of time at the gym in an effort to become stronger. Having topped both the batting and bowling averages for Nottinghamshire last season, he is quick to refute that there is any ill- feeling behind his departure, and he cites family problems and his girlfriend as the main reasons for his wish to move to the capital, where Surrey are thought to be signing him.

Last week I met him outside Trent Bridge, the home of Nottinghamshire and the venue for the Fifth Test against the West Indies. "You know," said the man who is not even part of the county game at the moment, "I'd give anything to walk out there on Thursday."

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