20 May 1996

Cricketing enigma in the mood to fulfil ambitions

By Michael Parkinson

CRITICS of Chris Lewis reckon he is a waste of space. They say he plays when it suits him, lacks heart when the going gets tough and suffered so many injuries that had he been a racehorse he would have been put down. He has been described as enigmatic, greedy, remote, self-centred and arrogant.

Graham Gooch, who captained England for most of the player`s 27 Test matches, said the difference between Dominic Cork and Chris Lewis was ambition. "You can tell just by looking at Cork`s eyes that he wants it bad. I was never sure what Lewis wanted," he said. All I can assume is that Graham never asked, because I did and Chris Lewis didn`t stop talking during a round of golf and through a pleasant lunch.

The man I interviewed was nothing like the person described in my research. That Chris Lewis appeared to be a posturing pain in the backside. The Chris Lewis I talked to was lucid, funny, self-effacing, and, to use the current in-word, `focused` about his ambitions and his career. Even Sergeant Major Gooch would have been delighted, although he might have jibbed at the skull cap Lewis wore to protect his head from the freezing winds of a May morn in England.

In a sense, Lewis`s very individual sense of style, his fashion- able elegance, is a clue to his sometimes fractious relation- ship with the conservative world of English cricket.

Had he played soccer or basketball for a living - sports em- braced by popular culture - he would be a huge star with his agent beating off admirers with a big stick. As it is, up until now, he has always seemed to be the outsider poised on the edge of the action, a peripheral uninvolved observer of the blokeish world of county cricket.

He is a religious man who carries a Bible in his cricket bag and reads it every day. He doesn`t drink and dislikes smoky pubs so takes no part in end-of-play rituals.

He keeps his body hard and conditioned by working out in a gym. He is not the sort of man you want to stand next to in a lock- er room. Not if you are a journalist with a beer belly you don`t. He weights 14st in his Calvin Klein`s and from what I could see there isn`t much of him that doesn`t have a mus- cle on it.

He once posed in his briefs for a magazine. The picture was published the week he played in a Test against Australia and made a pair. It was naturally assumed the two events were linked and Chris Lewis was advised to stop fiddling with fashion and concentrate on cricket. He was used to that. What he wasn`t prepared for was the hate mail from racists telling him to take his black body back from where he came, although not as pol- itely as that. It was his first encounter with racial abuse.

He learned his cricket on the streets. His hero was Viv Richards

He was born in Guyana, where his father was a Baptist teacher. His parents separated when he was very young and he was brought up by his mother and an extended family of aunts, uncles and a formidable grandmother. Part of his unhappiness at Not- tinghamshire was due to being parted from his mother and three brothers. He learned his cricket on the streets. His hero was Viv Richards.

When he started playing county cricket with Leicestershire he made a 40-odd with Richards in the opposition. The great man took him on one side and said he ought to have made a century. He then taught Lewis how to concentrate through a long innings. "He said that as soon as he played a shot he cleared his mind of cricket until the bowler turned to run in for the next delivery. That way he played every ball as if it was the first he received. I tried it in my next knock and scored 189," he said.

He has also scored two double-hundreds. In the one season he batted at six for Nottinghamshire he was fifth in the national batting averages with 58. "I would suggest this supports my claim that I am more than a bowler who can bat a bit," he said.

LEWIS says "I would suggest" quite a few times during our conversation. He also refers to himself in the third person. Thus: "Chris Lewis feels he could fill the all-rounder spot for England batting at six and being used as a strike bowler. At least Chris Lewis would like the chance to fail."

His critics would say he has already had that chance and fallen short of requirements. He would not argue that he could have done better but feels that today he is a better cricketer, a fitter and stronger athlete and a more determined character than he was when he last played for England. He could also argue, and with some justification, that when he last played for Eng- land - standing in for the final two Tests in Australia in `95 - he did enough to warrant a recall to the England squad.

He was our best bowler by far. In the intervening 15 months he has heard nothing from Ray Illingworth and his fellow selec- tors. This silence would be understandable from an executive in charge of a winning team, but given England`s wretched per- formances since that time and looking at some of the cricketers chosen in his place, it is difficult not to come to the conclu- sion that Chris Lewis has a right to feel aggrieved.

Not that he is complaining. He feels it would be negative to gripe. What he wants is to prove the selectors wrong. Force them by performance to pick him. This is the kind of fighting talk we need to hear from a man who is palpably our most gifted player and who could become one of the most impor- tant members of an England team fighting its way back to success and self- respect.

"I`ll keep talking to the selectors by what I do on the field of play. And I`ll keep talking until they hear me. I`ll put them in a situation where they have to pick Chris Lewis," he said.

Did he like bowling fast? `Love hitting people,` he said with a broad smile

He is in a bullish frame of mind. He thinks it is due to the fact that with Surrey, and the Australian coach Dave Gilbert, he feels part of a talented outfit and not as he did at Not- tingham, the expensive signing sitting in the corner.

The first thing Gilbert did when he arrived at Surrey was knock down the wall separating the dressing rooms for capped and uncapped players. He also took away the psychological barrier that has sometimes existed between Lewis and his coaches by stating that the cricketer had often been misunderstood because no one bothered talking to him. He approached Lewis without preconceived ideas and in- stead of being irked by as- pects of his personality, worked at understanding them. So far it has paid off.

Gilbert has no doubt of the cricketer`s quality. He sees him as a strike bowler and not a workhorse. The idea delights Lewis, who felt that part of the problem he had playing under Gooch and Keith Fletcher was he was expected to bowl fast for 25 overs a day.

"I was one of four bowlers and we had an awful lot of slog to do. You can`t do that and bowl fast all the time. It is physi- cally impossible. Bowl me in short spells and I`ll give it all I`ve got," he said. Did he like bowling fast? "Love hit- ting people," he said with a broad smile.

His coach reckons he hits the gloves harder than any other En- glish bowler. Again this assessment pleases Lewis. What he is not quite so chuffed about is the coach`s decision to bat him at seven or eight. Indeed he`s been as low as No 9 this season. "It will be difficult batting for England at six - which is my ambition - when I`m a tailender with Surrey," he said.

This determination, not just to play for England but to be both respected and feared by opposing batters and bowlers, is not something newly acquired. Lewis`s critics will no doubt be surprised to hear it is an ambition he has nurtured since he was a child. He always wanted to be a famous cricketer. When he came to England at the age of 10 he spent hours alone in his back yard bowling at the wall and hitting the rebound with a bat. He dreamed of being a mixture of Michael Holding and King Viv. Mr Evans and Mr Williams at Willesden High recognised the talent and made sure it flowered. He joined Leicestershire when he was 17.

Now 28, he feels a veteran. He also feels that people still don`t know him. With that in mind he has started courting the media. It is impossible not to be impressed. He is articulate and thoughtful. He would make a welcome addition to any commenta- ry team, which is what he would like to do when he finishes with the game.

At present that is an ambition too far. What he must do first is fulfil his dreams to be a great international cricketer. "The worst thing of all would be to reach 30 and never know just how far you could have gone. I don`t intend to let that hap- pen," he said.

What criticism has done is make me stronger as a person and much more determined to be a better cricketer

I Asked if he prayed for fulfilment of his ambitions. "No. I take the view that cricket is too difficult and complex a game to do well all the time. So I don`t bother asking God for favours. What I do pray for is health and strength to do my job," he said.

Hobbies? "Sleeping. I am very fond of that. Listening to music. Jazz, soul, reggae. Apart from that I love fighting with my brothers, like brothers do, and playing cricket with them." Is he hurt by what has been written about him? "Of course. Surprisingly one of the things that really annoys me is when people say `he is naturally gifted` as if I don`t have to do any- thing to be a good cricketer. I work very hard at the game. I like Gary Player`s observation when someone accused him of being lucky and he said: `I find the harder I practise, the luckier I am.` What criticism has done is make me stronger as a person and much more determined to be a better cricketer."

He chooses another golfer, Nick Faldo, as someone he admires for his dedication to the game and strength of will. I wish I could report Chris Lewis showed the same kind of promise as his hero on the golf course. At the eighth on the East Course at Wentworth - a long par four - he topped his drive about 60 yards into swampy rough.

I remarked that Faldo used to practise playing holes the wrong way round. In other words he would take a wedge off the tee and then a driver for his second shot. Jokingly, I observed that this was how Mr Lewis should regard the impossible situa- tion he created by duffing his tee shot, whereupon he took the driver and whacked the ball 250 yards down the fairway towards the green.

It was awesome. Nick Faldo would have been proud of him. A simi- lar demonstration of anger and determination on the cricket field this season might even convince selector Gooch that the light of ambition he saw in Dominic Cork also burns in Chris Lewis.

Source :: Electronic Telegraph (http.//www.telegraph.co.uk)