Lewis promises common touch on elevation to Lord's (3 October 1998)

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3 October 1998

Lewis promises common touch on elevation to Lord's

Interview by Giles Smith

MEMBERS of Marylebone Cricket Club may care to ponder the fact that their incoming president has been at work in a Cardiff gym recently, learning to throw punches. For his 60th birthday, Tony Lewis's wife bought him a series of sessions with a personal trainer. These work-outs have brought Lewis into contact with fitness activities of which, as an ex-professional cricketer, he had no previous experience - rowing, weight-lifting and boxing. His trainer puts the pads on, and Lewis thumps them, paying particular attention to the follow-through.

"Two sharp lefts and a right. It's a whole new culture," Lewis said with delight this week, though also with a hint of regret that the fight world had only now, after a lifetime in cricket, opened up to him. "I could have hit Ian Chappell years ago," he said.

At the MCC, the prime opportunity for a punch-up may have passed. Last Monday evening, this most extraordinary of sporting institutions finally voted to admit women - not only as a concept, but also as members. The nature and duration of this debate, which seems to have been on-going for the best part of our lifetimes, cannot be said to have done the public perception of the MCC many favours. It made them look the way the Vatican sometimes does: slowly groping towards a position on matters about which the rest of the world made up its mind years ago. Finally, however, more than two-thirds of the membership were in favour, but 4,072 members were not and the evening did not pass without what Lewis referred to, with a wince, as "several sharp speeches".

Lewis took over at the top, as planned, four days later. The battle was over but the potentially tricky business of coping with the victory was in his hands. There was, by the way, no arcane swearing-in ceremony for the new president: no kissing of old cricket balls, no dropping of trousers or hopping on the spot; just a dinner at Boodle's for committee members and former presidents, and a speech from the outgoing president telling everyone who Lewis is. "Which should be interesting to hear," Lewis said when we spoke, the day before it happened. Touchingly, he was unaware at this point whether or not the new job came with its own desk, but he thought it probably didn't.

Lewis talks quietly and fluidly, smiling apparently at random and drawing occasionally from those twin fonts of poetic wisdom, Dylan Thomas and John Arlott. ("Go when they can ask why, not when they can ask why not," he said at one point, quoting, I think, the latter). The sweetness of his Welsh accent will be familiar to anyone who listened to him during his 10 years on Sport on Four or, more recently, watched him present cricket for the BBC.

Indeed, Lewis embodies a mysterious phenomenon whereby, though a television personality, he continues to go unrecognised until he opens his mouth. "I mean, they look at my face and probably think I was in The Avengers or whatever. They seem to recognise me: 'Oh, you're the guy from the darts'. But when I sit in a taxi, the driver might say, 'I know your voice'." Now that's all he will know: Lewis has decided he would be compromised by his new MCC role, so is standing down from television work.

We met at a club to which Lewis belongs in Cardiff - one that insists on the wearing of ties and which, curiously enough, refuses women admission except (if I understood Lewis correctly) to the basement. An irony here, then - though perhaps not one to be pushed too hard. Lewis never hid where he stood on the MCC women's issue: he was pro-women. One of his two daughters plays cricket. He offered a small piece of autobiography to illustrate his contention that he "has no problem with women": he was raised by his mother because his father was away in the war. In fact, Lewis did not meet his father until, at the age of eight, he was introduced to a Major Lewis on the platform at Neath General Railway Station.

It is probably more relevant that Lewis thinks women play the game too well to be ignored. He said that a lot of the arguments he heard to the contrary on Monday were founded on the belief that the MCC are a private club. "And clearly we're not," he said. "We're a club that is a world brand. The potency of the MCC is incredible. It's a bit old empire, but it's not a gin and tonic in a hammock in a far distant part."

The accusation that the MCC committee were merely playing a political game to secure funding was, he said, sourceless. "We never thought about any political intervention, we never thought about the Lottery, we never thought about anything other than what was the right thing to do. It wasn't even about escaping opprobrium. If you want to be the best club in the world, you've got to have a women's team because they play so well." He said there was "no doubt at all" that women would figure in the next annual election of honorary members. He thought the first MCC women's team would be playing next year, at the end of the summer, following the World Cup.

It is Lewis's contention that he has done everything there is to do in the game of cricket, but none of it particularly well. "I've played, I've been chairman of a professional county, I've been on MCC committees since the Sixties," he said. "I've got a hundred in a Test match, won a County Championship, I've written for a hundred years in The Sunday Telegraph, and I've commentated. So I've had a good view of the game."

For the MCC, he has what he called his 'mission statement' ("We have to be the greatest cricket club in the world") but that would have to survive alongside his own scepticism ("We think we run the best ground in the world at Lord's, but do we? You've got to examine that by the day"). "The biggest mistake," Lewis said, "is to go in saying 'I want my presidency to be remembered for. . .' You set yourself a hurdle too high. And I've got an act I can't follow, anyway."

He meant the outgoing president Colin Ingleby-Mackenzie. Lewis and his predecessor played cricket against each other. Lewis says they were the same kind of player. "We tended to go down the pitch and work it out when we got there. And probably 'under-performed', as Boycott would say."

But Ingleby-Mackenzie will forever be known as the president who steered through the women's admission issue. Certainly from the point of view of the 4,072 members who voted 'no', there would be nothing Lewis could do to leave a mark as bold and deep as that, short of concreting Lord's over and turning it into a skateboard park and ten-pin bowling arena.

He has, for the moment, less radical plans. "It's hard to communicate with a membership of 17,000 plus. It's a massive business. At the meeting on Monday, what came through very clearly to me was that a section of the membership was disaffected because of its failure to communicate with the committee and vice versa." So there will be a new communications and corporate affairs department. Lewis denied that this was just a fancy name for a spin-unit. "No, I'm definitely anti-spin," he said. "Spin spins back in your face."

Lewis will be the first MCC president to embrace the information age. He lives "in the foothills of the Rhonnda with three million sheep. But communications are such that you can do a lot from there." So, though he realises he needs to have a presence at Lord's, he proposes largely to tele-commute. Not long ago the club asked him for 1,000 words to be published in the first newsletter of his reign. Lewis surprised the staff by ringing back two hours later to say the article was ready and asking for an e-mail address so he could send it through directly. Apparently there was a silence at the other end: the MCC does have an e-mail address, it was just never before thought that it was something the president would be interested in knowing about.

"I want the MCC to be so good that people ask us to be involved," Lewis said. "I sat on the Test and County Cricket Board for five years, four of them as chairman. The debate at the MCC is stratospheres above it in perception and wisdom. It's fuelled by people who know stuff and have no axe to grind. They're a very bright lot."

For his efforts, Lewis will receive no money - just like in his other role as chairman of the Welsh Tourist Board, where he was elected to a third term this week. "I've been brilliant at getting unpaid jobs," he said. Even before taking up office, he had a pile of letters inviting him to speak. "There will be glossy occasions, I guess, where I'll tell the same stories," Lewis said. "But I don't want to trot up and down Park Lane. I'd rather appear in places like Neath Cricket Club, where the MCC sent a team down for the 150th anniversary and where it was massively appreciated.

"I learnt cricket on the street in Neath," he went on, "and we learned naturally. We stopped play on the Bracken Road only when Arthur the Oil came with his horse and cart to sell paraffin or when Hopkins the Milk came with a delivery."

Lewis then raised his right arm and, flicking his wrist, talked me through the catalogue of bowling tricks he mastered as a young boy, using a tennis ball dipped in a puddle: the leg-spinner that would "drift in the air . . . the skidder that went straight through".

It is worth noting that presidents of the MCC get to nominate their successors. So in the case of Ingleby-Mackenzie and Lewis, an Old Etonian nominated a Neath Grammar School boy. Also, in the chain of MCC presidents (former incumbents include the Duke of Edinburgh, twice), Lewis must be one of the first to come from west of Watford. In a week of change, this, too, looked like an emblematic shift of emphasis.

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

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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